The Chimes
a play in two acts by
Conrad Bishop & Elizabeth Fuller
based on the story by
Charles Dickens
(The script is to be performed by four men and two women.)
Toby Veck, an elderly messenger
Meg, his daughter
Richard, her fiancé
Alderman Cute, a Justice of the Peace
Sir Joseph Bowley, Member of Parliament
Lady Bowley, his wife
Tugby, the universal flunkey
Two Gentlemen
Will Fern, a countryman
Mrs. Chickenstalker, a shopkeeper
Tugby, as her husband
Health Warden
The Great Bell
Voices of the Chimes
Shadows of a New Year’s Feast
Shadow of Lilian, Will Fern’s niece
Doubling as follows:
Meg / Shadow
Richard / First Gentleman / Health Warden / Shadow
Will Fern / Tugby / Second Gentleman / Shadow
Lady Bowley / Mrs. Chickenstalker / Shadow of Lilian
Speaker / Alderman Cute / Sir Joseph Bowley / Great Bell
London. New Year’s Eve, 1843.
Street. Nobleman’s town house. Attic above coachhouse. Church belfry.
A city dreamscape.

Set elements must be simple and very fluid. The stage action is non-illusionistic in the sense that scenery is fragmentary, actors doubled, etc. But Dickens is a realist, and the acting, costuming and “character design” must be absolutely realistic in its delineation of human behavior. The actors won’t be challenged with the question of how the characters feel — that’s obvious every moment. The real challenge is to show us precisely how a freezing man tries to keep warm, how a woman feeds a baby that’s just been weaned, how people stand before their betters, and so on. The best source, besides life, is the entire work of Dickens.

A rear projection screen is vital for shadow effects. With the use of overhead or other projectors, using a few live actors, hands, and moveable cutout forms, an enormous population of shadows can be produced. A white surface is not necessary for shadow work: the screen can be painted on muslin with dye or lightly with scene paint.

Music and sound are vital components, but music as emotional accompaniment must be used sparingly, lest the melodramatic element be underlined too heavily. Except for the heavier bells, everything must have a lightness of texture, like the best traditional Celtic music. A music score by Elizabeth Fuller is available on CD.

Finally, it’s vital to remember that this is a comedy, and the actors have to be capable not only of true, forceful, almost operatic emotion, but also of making us laugh.

© 1987 Conrad Bishop & Elizabeth Fuller. All rights reserved.
For production information, contact WordWorkers, 800-357-6016 or E-mail.
Act One
Painted backdrop: an 1840’s view of London. At one side, an archway suggesting the door of a church. At the other, steps going up to the entrance to a wealthy residence. A central playing area, transformable to many locales.
Winter light.
Except for the detail of the backdrop, the setting is abstract and contemporary. The actors are costumed in naturalistic 1840’s style, and all hand properties are in period, but furnishings and other set elements are as non-specific to period as possible: the play is an old story, existing in the present.
On the steps, a figure appears, in a Victorian greatcoat. He speaks to us directly, but with reserve, as if to people who may not quite follow his words.
SPEAKER: There are not many— How do I say it? There are not many who would like to sleep in a church.
I don’t mean at sermon-time. That’s been known to happen. I mean at night. Alone.
The night wind has a dismal trick of circling round, it wails, whistles, breaks shrill into laughter, lamenting, lingering.
But high up in the steeple, where the belfry is!— The foul blast roars, iron rails ragged with rust crackle and heave, and speckled spiders, fat, swing to and fro in vibrations of the bells.
There. If you please to look?
High up in that steeple, above the muttering city, in the dreary wild old top of a church, dwelt the Chimes.
Old Chimes. Centuries old. But clear, loud, lusty, sounding “all to fits,” as Toby Veck said— Toby Veck, I’ll come to him in a minute.
They had their own voices that rang on the wind, but not on account of the wind. They spoke the notes they wanted to speak, no matter what the weather.
Lights, opposite. A thin, elderly man, in a battered top hat, ragged coat, and the apron of a ticket-porter, stands in the doorway, shivering, bouncing slightly to warm up.
That was Toby Veck’s belief. And he’d heard the Chimes’ voices more than any man alive. For he stood all day just outside the church-door.
They called him “Trotty”—
TOBY: (to himself) “Trotty, Trotty, here Trotty. . .”
SPEAKER: But his name was Toby. Son of Tobias the son of Tobias, porters all. He was a ticket-porter. A ticketed porter—
TOBY: (to himself) As opposed to your unticketed, unlicensed porters, that’s taking away all the work in this Year of Our Lord bloody 1843—
Realizes he’s talking aloud. Looks around, confused.
SPEAKER: And he waited there for jobs.
Toby feels a gust of wind, tries to seal the openings of his garments, methodically, but one adjustment leads to another opening. Two Gentleman appear, pausing to pull on their gloves, adjust their mufflers.
FIRST GENTLEMAN: How would you like a position like that?
SECOND GENTLEMAN: Why not? The freshening breeze, the sound of the pattering drizzle.
Toby realizes his finger is sticking through a hole in his glove. Adjusts, finds it sticking through a different hole. Finally houses it, finds three fingers have emerged. He hunches, trots back and forth like a muffled turtle. The Gentleman laugh.
SECOND GENTLEMAN: Speak of a breezy, goose-skinned, stony-toed, tooth-chattering place to spend the winter in—
FIRST GENTLEMAN: Wet weather must be the worst. Cold, clammy wet falling drip, drip, drip. Look.
They watch again. Toby feels a drip down his neck. He moves to one side. Gets another drip. Covers his head with a rumpled newspaper. The drip goes down his coat sleeve. He stuffs the newspaper in his coat sleeve, hunches.
The times that try men’s souls, the Americans say. Well, I suppose he’s used to it. Ticket-porters, they’re dying out. Less costly to contract the abundantly unemployed. The iron law of economics.
SECOND GENTLEMAN: That’s his name.
Frozen, Toby makes tiny hops from one foot to the other.
What’s he doing, an Irish jig?
SECOND GENTLEMAN: Haven’t you seen him? It’s worth a sixpence. He thinks he’s the fastest porter alive. He trots along about half the speed of a walk, and by spending twice the energy he needs, that weak little old man convinces himself that he’s worth his salt.
FIRST GENTLEMAN: What’s he looking at? Pigeons?
SECOND GENTLEMAN: The Chimes. I’ve seen him look up waiting for them to speak. They’re kin to him, I suppose. They hang there in all weathers, wind and rain—
FIRST GENTLEMAN: Make him a philosopher—
SECOND GENTLEMAN: No, I fancy he simply loves the Chimes. So mysterious. Heard but never seen. High up, far off, so full of deep strong melody, as if to beckon him—
FIRST GENTLEMAN: Save us from poetic ticket-porters.
FIRST GENTLEMAN: “Trotty.” Does he have a real name, do you suppose?
SECOND GENTLEMAN: I have no idea.
They depart. Toby, gazing up, gets a crick in his neck. Checks his pocket watch, hits it: it’s dead. The Chimes begin to ring noon.
TOBY: Dinnertime. Ah. Dinnertime.
Looks around vaguely for an absent dinner. Settles, mumbling to himself.
Nothing more regular in its coming round than dinner-time, and nothing less regular in its coming round than dinner. That’s the difference between’em. They should write it in the papers.
Here’s last week’s paper now.
Takes the dirty copy from his sleeve, smoothes it. Stomps on his toes to warm them. Then reads the paper, absorbed.
Lord send us a better New Year. We mangled the Old.
Seems we can’t go right. “The Working Poor.” Refers to us. We are working, when there’s work, and the rest goes without saying.
We fill up the papers. We seem to be frightful things. “Sowing Discontent.”
Is there any good in us at all? Or are we born bad? Born bad, maybe so. You’d not see a gentlefolks’ baby come out red-faced, protesting. No, they’re born singing “God Save the Queen.”
We do our best, or some of us does. If we had a better class o’ lower class. I hadn’t schooling enough to make it out.
MEG: (off) Father—
TOBY: “Society’s Burden.” “Surplus Population.” Is the problem Society, or is it all the bloody population? If we’re rid of the population, we’re rid of the problem. No business on the face of the earth!
He gives the paper a glance, deeply troubled.
New Year. . . I don’t think I’ve received an invitation.
MEG: Father!
Meg appears, carrying a covered basket, sees him standing in the church door. He sees her, stops, startled.
SPEAKER: Bright eyes.
Eyes for a lifetime of looking.
Eyes beautiful, true, beaming with Hope.
Hope so buoyant and bright—
Toby trots to her, embraces her, touches her with wonder and love.
TOBY: Why Pet, I didn’t expect you, Meg! Here she is!
MEG: I didn’t expect to come—
TOBY: Here she is and here we are!
MEG: And here I am. (holding up basket) With work that requires a porter.
TOBY: You wouldn’t mean to say—
MEG: Smell it, Father. Let me lift up the corner. There. Now guess.
TOBY: (sniffing) It’s hot! It an’t— I suppose it an’t Polonies?
MEG: No! Nothing like Polonies.
TOBY: Mellower than Polonies. It improves every minute. Trotters?
Meg laughs.
Liver? Cocks’ heads? No. I know it an’t sausages. Sausages? No, it’s chitterlings!
MEG: No!
TOBY: Then. . . Why I forgot the smell! It’s tripe!
She laughs, hugs him.
MEG: You’ll say it’s the best tripe ever stewed. Now I brought the tripe in a basin, tied in a handkerchief, so I’ll spread that for a tablecloth. I can call it a tablecloth, can’t I, Father?
TOBY: Unless there’s some new law. . .
MEG: Where will you dine, Father? On the Post or on the Steps?
TOBY: Post in dry weather, steps in wet.
MEG: Now hurry, there’s a hot potato, and half a pint of beer. How grand we are!
She spreads the cloth. He stands looking at her, in wonder. Chimes ring the quarter hour.
TOBY: Amen!
MEG: Amen?
TOBY: They broke in like a grace, my dear. A grace.
MEG: The Chimes, Father?
TOBY: Oh many’s a thing they say to me. Yes, Pet.
Starts eating with relish, continuing to talk and gesture between bites. Meg watches him with pleasure, sometimes giving him another bite.
How often I’ve heard them say, “Toby Veck . . . Toby Veck . . . Keep a good heart, Toby!” And a warm nose. A million times!
MEG: Well I never.
TOBY: When things is very bad, I mean almost at the worst, then it’s. . . (gesturing) “Toby Veck . . . Toby Veck . . . Job coming right soon, Toby!”
MEG: And it comes, Father!
TOBY: Never fails. And when it’s worst, when there’s neither hope nor a crust, and an evil drip on the head and a crick in the neck, amd the New Year looks to be worse than the one we got rid of—
Looks at her. Momentary grief, then smiling.
Then it’s. . . “Toby Veck. . . Toby Veck. . . See those bright eyes Toby. . .” And I do.
Continues eating, then stops suddenly.
Why Lord forgive me! Sitting here stuffing, cramming myself—
MEG: I’ve had my dinner.
TOBY: Nonsense! You never do have, I know it! “I an’t hungry, Father, I ate last week.”
MEG: I have! And I’ll tell you where, and something else besides. Eat!
He does, reluctantly. Then avidly.
I had my dinner, Father, with Richard. He brought his dinner, and we shared.
MEG: And Richard says, Father. . .
TOBY: What says Richard?
MEG: Richard says. . .
TOBY: He’s a long time saying it.
MEG: He says, then, Father. . .
“Here’s another year nearly gone, and where’s the use of waiting on from year to year, so unlikely we’ll ever be better off than we are now?”
He says, "We’re poor now, and we’ll be poor then. But we’re young now, and the years’ll make us old before we know it.
“And how hard to grow old, and think we might have cheered each other. How hard all our lives to love each other, growing old and gray, and to grieve apart.
“Imagine a heart so full as mine is now, and live as it drained, every drop, without the small happy smiles of a woman’s life, to light me, and make me warm.”
Silence. She laughs. Sobs. Laughs.
That’s what he said.
TOBY: Poetic.
MEG: So Richard says, Father, that as his work is steady now, and as I love him, and have loved him three years, would I care to marry on New Year’s Day?
TOBY: So? Would you care to?
Speechless, Meg embraces him as he holds a piece of tripe, unable to get it to his mouth. At last she finds words:
MEG: New Years Day! The best and happiest day in the year.
It’s short notice, Father, but I haven’t my dowry to be settled, or my wedding gowns to be made, like the great ladies, have I?
So I said I’d come and talk to you, and as they paid me for that work of mine this morning, and I wanted something to make this day a sort of holiday to you as well, I bought a little treat.
Richard has appeared.
RICHARD: And see how he leaves it cooling!
MEG: Richard!
RICHARD: And see how he leaves it cooling on the step! Meg don’t know what her father likes! Not she!
He laughs, lifting her, spinning. Toby waves his arms with glee. Meg and Richard whisper together. They look at Toby. He raises his hat, comes to them haltingly, trying to find words, then shakes hands enthusiastically with Richard and embraces Meg.
The great door above the steps opens. Tugby, a footman, appears, nearly stepping in the tripe.
TUGBY: Out of the ways here! Always settin’ on our steps! Give a turn to the neighbors!
Justice Cute appears at the door.
CUTE: What’s the matter, what’s the matter?
TUGBY: Why don’t you let doorsteps be? Doorsteps isn’t a pigsty, is it?
CUTE: That’ll do. Hello there! Porter! What’s that? Your dinner?
TOBY: Yes sir.
CUTE: Bring it here. Let’s look into this.
Toby obediently brings it to him.
So this is your dinner, is it? (probing it with the fork) Tugby, this is a sort of animal food commonly known to the labour force by the name of tripe.
TUGBY: Yes, Your Honour—
CUTE: But who eats tripe?
Tripe is without exception the least economical article of consumption the markets of this country can produce. The loss in a pound of tripe, in boiling, is seven-eighths of a fifth more than the loss in any other animal substance.
Tripe is more expensive, proportionally, than caviar. Imagine the expanse of meat on a beef compared to the tiny measure of the great beast’s stomach lining. The waste, the waste!
Who eats tripe?
Toby makes a miserable bow.
You do, do you? Then I’ll tell you something, my friend. You snatch your tripe from the mouths of widows and orphans.
TOBY: I hope not, sir—
CUTE: Divide the volume of tripe by the number of extant widows and orphans, and the result will be one mouthful of tripe to each. Not a shred for you.
Cute absently eats the last piece of tripe.
Look at you. What an object. The Good Old Times! What a porter used to wear in the Old Times! You should be ashamed. What do you say?
TOBY: Aye, sir. Which— Which times was those, Your Honour, sir?
CUTE: Which times! Why, the Old Ones! The times of a Bold Peasantry, that sort of thing. The Good Old Times! The Grand Old Times! When things were Good! When people wore Costumes! Merry Old England, that business! You don’t call these times “Times,” do you? What do you say? What?
Toby makes a vague, deferential gesture. Tugby has returned with cloak for Cute.
See what he says, Tugby? Nothing!
TUGBY: No sir.
CUTE: Deal with these people, you have to talk their language. I am a plain man. Now you, Porter! Now don’t you ever tell me, my friend, that you haven’t enough to eat. I know better. I tasted your tripe, you know. Ha ha. (to Tugby) It’s easy to deal with’em if you understand’em.
TUGBY: Yessir.
CUTE: You see, my friend, among you people, and those who coddle you, there’s a great deal of talk about Want. Starvation, all that depressing babble. And I intend to Stamp it Out.
Meg takes Toby’s hand protectively.
Your daughter? Where’s her mother?
TOBY: Her mother was called to Heaven when she was born.
CUTE: Heaven.
MEG: Heaven, Your Honour. And we was just moving off your steps, we was, we only was having a dinner—
CUTE: And what are you?
RICHARD: Smith, sir. Blacksmith.
CUTE: You’re her young man?
RICHARD: We are going to be married on New Year’s Day.
CUTE: Married? (to Tugby) Married! Did you hear him? The man said “Married.”
TUGBY: Yessir.
RICHARD: Why, yes, unless it should be Stamped Out by then.
MEG: Richard—
CUTE: Married! These people’s ignorance of Political Economy.
We can heap up facts on figures, facts on figures, mountains high and dry, and we can no more persuade’em they have no business to be married, than we can persuade’em they have no earthy right to be born. And that we know by mathematical proof.
Come here, girl.
Meg comes forward hesitantly.
Now I’ll give you advice. I’m a Justice, you know. You know I’m a Justice?
MEG: (badly frightened) Yes.
CUTE: You are going to be married, you say.
No response.
Very unbecoming to one of your sex. Never mind.
Once you marry, you’ll quarrel with your husband and become an Ill-used Wife. You will. I see them every day.
Now I give you fair warning that I have made up my mind in regard to Ill-used Wives to Stamp them Out.
You’ll have children. Boys. These boys will grow up bad, run wild in riot and tumult. I’ll convict’em every one, for I am resolved with Tumultous Boys to Stamp them Out.
Now your husband there will die young and leave you a baby. They do, I see it. You’ll be turned out of doors and ramble the streets. Now don’t ramble near me, my dear, for I am resolved to Stamp all Rambling Mothers Out.
Illness, babies— And don’t think you’ll attempt desperately, ungratefully, and fraudulently to drown yourself, hang yourself, no! Depressing Public Spectacles, I will Stamp them Out!
What do you say? You say “Yessir.”
Meg is silent.
Well heavens, man, she’s your daughter! Tell her!
Toby is panicked, confused. Looks at Meg, raises his finger as if to speak, looks back at Cute.
What do you say?
TOBY: (terrified) Yessir, Your Honour. . . What it says in the paper. . . It’s got to stop. No work for honest men, all the rabble that lives like pigs, and they’ll not change, that’s the class of people they are, the Surplus Population—
CUTE: And Marriage? You approve of Marriage?
TOBY: Nosir— Yessir, Your Honour— No, the marrying, that’s to say, no, nothing for us, no good in us, born bad—
MEG: Father!
He sees her shock, stops, confused.
TOBY: Or— That’s to say— I hadn’t schooling—
CUTE: (turning to Richard) And as for you! Married! Fine, young, strapping chap like you? She’ll be an old woman before you’re middle-aged. All the pretty girls, and you with a draggletail wife and a litter of squalling brats. Married!
Now go along. Happy New Year.
Meg turns away, in tears. Richard touches her. Cute looks about, lost.
Now then! What am I doing here? I’m a busy man! Stop wasting my time!
Looks at Tugby, who indicates an envelope Cute has brandished the whole time.
Letter. Yes. You’ll carry a letter for me. Yes.
He checks the letter as Meg, controlling her tears, moves to pick up the dish, and moves away, followed by Richard.
TOBY: Pet. . .
At a distance, Meg and Richard stop, look at one another, separate and go. Cute seals the envelope.
CUTE: Yes. Sir Joseph Bowley, Eaton Square. Porter, are you quick? You’re an old man.
TOBY: Very quick, Your Honour.
CUTE: How old are you?
TOBY: Past sixty, sir.
CUTE: Well past the average, you know.
TOBY: Yessir. Sorry, sir.
CUTE: Let’s see, a shilling?
TUGBY: Sixpence. Best not spoil’em.
CUTE: Quite right. Porter!
TOBY: Sir?
CUTE: Take care of that daughter of yours. She’s too handsome. No mistake.
Goes back into house, followed by Tugby.
TOBY: Even her good looks is filched, he’d say. “She’s robbed five hundred ladies of a bloom apiece.”
No. Don’t dispute your betters. No, Your Honour, I’ll see she don’t run wild and commit marriage or— But they look to be in love, but—
I hadn’t schooling enough to make it out.
Wrong every way. The tune’s changed. “Good Old Times, Good Old Times.” “Stamp it Out, Stamp it Out.” Not a ring of hope in it.
He looks at the letter.
“Sir Joseph Bowley, Member of Parliament.”
He interposes a corner of his apron between his fingers and the letter, so as not to smudge it.
I know him. They print his speeches in the paper. “The Friend of the Poor.” That’s more’n they can say of me. I’m no friend of the poor.
If he had a daughter now— If Meg was his daughter—
Ah the New Year. . .
Toby trots through the town. Gentlemen appear, with baskets from the wine-shop.
FIRST GENTLEMAN: Ah the New Year. Tiresome theme. I picture it a sort of fat prune-faced baby that’s beat its old father to death.
SECOND GENTLEMAN: It never fails. Kill off the Old Year. It’s worked like a cart-horse, kicked, flogged and starved, and we never allow that the fault may be in the driver and not in the horse.
FIRST GENTLEMAN: I say Out with the Old, In with the New. Look, there goes your trotting ticket-porter. Don’t you suppose he’s happy to discard the Old Year and look ahead?
SECOND GENTLEMAN: If you’ve had no grasp on the Old, how can you touch the New?
Gentlemen disappear, as Toby climbs steps to Sir Joseph’s doorway.
TOBY: New Year. Nothing for me. Stamp it Out.
Toby knocks. Door opens. He enters. Another Tugby, identical to the first, takes the letter from Toby. Sir Joseph, sits in a chair, leg elevated, Lady Bowley applying compresses. Sir Joseph winces.
SIR JOSEPH: Ahhh! What is it?
TUGBY: From Justice Cute, Sir Joseph.
SIR JOSEPH: Nothing else? No accounts to clear out the Old Year, to make way for the New?
LADY BOWLEY: (indicating leg) Higher, dear.
SIR JOSEPH: Ahh! So that if death were to— to—
SIR JOSEPH: Sever the cord of existence— Ahh!
LADY BOWLEY: (shocked) Dear Sir Joseph! (brightly) Pill time!
SIR JOSEPH: Dear Lady Bowley. At this season of the year we should look deeply into our— our accounts. We should feel that every return of this season involves a sacred communion between a man and his— his banker.
LADY BOWLEY: Oh it’s a wretched season. All the charities at the door. Why can’t they have a brighter outlook on life and stay away?
SIR JOSEPH: My dear, there is much suffering.
LADY BOWLEY: I suppose.
SIR JOSEPH: Dyspepsia, gout. The Holidays are times of indulgence, without which the Economy would fail.
LADY BOWLEY: (with pills) Open wide.
LADY BOWLEY: Well you are the Poor Man’s Friend, Sir Joseph. You suffer as he does. For his sake. Otherwise he would not thrive.
SIR JOSEPH: And he does thrive.
LADY BOWLEY: He abounds.
SIR JOSEPH: I am the Poor Man’s Friend. I ask no other title. Sir?
TOBY: Yes, bless you, sir.
SIR JOSEPH: The Justice sees it otherwise. I don’t agree. To my friend the Poor Man, I assume a paternal character. I say, “My good fellow, I will treat you like— like a child.”
TOBY: Yessir.
SIR JOSEPH: Don’t trouble yourself to think, my fellow. I think for you.
This is as God intended. Not that you abuse your spirit with food, but that you feel the Dignity of Labour. (a stab of pain) Ahh!
Go forth erect into the cheerful morning air. Exercise frugality, and when, by the Dignity of Labour, you sink into a pleasurable grave, then I will be to your children a Friend and Father— You have children?
TOBY: I do, sir. A daughter.
SIR JOSEPH: A daughter! Lovely girl!
TOBY: I love her, sir. She’s to be married. Sorry, sir.
SIR JOSEPH: Marriage! Love! Babies! What a blessing! God’s way of keeping the— the corn prices high and the wages low.
LADY BOWLEY: Nice babies indeed. Rheumatisms, crooked legs and asthmas—
TOBY: Yessir. Born bad, sir. Nothing melts us.
LADY BOWLEY: Take your salts.
SIR JOSEPH: Liver pills.
SIR JOSEPH: What man can do, I do. Once a year, New Year’s Day, I give a great celebration for Lady Bowley’s birthday, which New Year’s Day has the honour to be.
And to inculcate the one great moral lesson which your class requires, Dependence, Mr. Tugby dispenses manna from— from me.
I feast my labourers and tenants — all who have a reasonable right to— to exist. I dispense benevolence like— like hailstones.
Start the New Year with a clean account. My friend, can you say the same?
TOBY: I’m afraid, sir, that I am a little behind-hand with the world.
SIR JOSEPH: Behind-hand?
TOBY: Ten or twelve shillings owing to Mrs. Chickenstalker—
SIR JOSEPH: Mrs. Chickenstalker!
TOBY: It oughtn’t to be owing, I know, but we have been hard put to it.
SIR JOSEPH: (despairing) An old man. How he can lie on his gray hairs at night—
TOBY: I wish it was otherwise, sir. We’re born this way, I guess.
SIR JOSEPH: Tugby, water. What’s this?
Opens letter.
Justice Cute. He does me the favour to inquire whether it is agreeable, as it concerns a person from my home district, to have Will Fern, ah, “Stamped Out.”
LADY BOWLEY: Horrible man! He’s committed some murder, I hope?
SIR JOSEPH: Not quite. He came up to London, his story is, to look for employment. He was found asleep in a shed and carried before the Justice. The Justice is determined to stamp out Homelessness, and intends to start with him.
LADY BOWLEY: By all means. Last winter, I introduced needlework among the men and boys in our village, as a proper evening employment, and had lines set to music for them to sing—
        O let us love our occupations,
        Bless the squire and his relations,
        Live upon our daily rations,
        And always know our proper stations—
This Will Fern — I see him now — touched his hat to me and said. . .
Light on distant figure.
WILL FERN: I humbly ask your pardon, my lady, but an’t I something different from a child?
Fade as Lady Bowley reacts.
LADY BOWLEY: Sir Joseph, make him an example.
SIR JOSEPH: (to Toby) My friend!
TOBY: Sir?
SIR JOSEPH: What do you say? You are the people of whom I am an humble servant. Shall I exercise compassion for these souls who seem so discontent with their proper stations? Perhaps urge mercy? Perhaps levy new taxation to pay for efforts at relief?—
TOBY: Sir, I’ve not had schooling. But the taxes are— Why should they have relief if we’ve not had it? No sir— I’ve had no charity. I’ve earned my sixpence. I’ve no complaints.
SIR JOSEPH: And Will Fern?
TOBY: That type of man, sir, I’ve not had schooling, but— Born bad, sir— He’s like what they say he is, he’s the cause of it all, why then, Stamp Him Out!
Toby is startled at his own vehemence. Gestures vaguely.
That’s to say—
SIR JOSEPH: Tugby, letter. “My dear sir. . . Very much indebted etcetera. . . Will Fern etcetera. . . Turbulent and rebellious spirit etcetera. . .” Change the compress. “Nothing will persuade him to be happy. Therefore his committal as a Vagabond would be a service to yours trulycetera. . .”
Tugby finishes the letter, seals it, gives it to Toby.
There! Take the letter. Take the letter. Show him out, Tugby. Salts for my spleen—
Tugby has ushered Toby to the door. Toby stops, turns back, puzzled.
TOBY: Tugby?
TUGBY: Tugby.
TOBY: You look like another Tugby.
TUGBY: It’s human nature. All clerks is named Tugby. All clerks, functionaries, and doers of necessary deeds. It’s a condition of employment.
Tugby gives him sixpence and a shove. Scene disappears. Toby looks up.
TOBY: They’re set to ring again. “Friends and Fathers, Friends and Fathers!”
Sir Joseph’s feast, that must be fine. Imagine if Meg was to go, and Richard, they’d be so happy. . .
Imagine, being invited into . . . Sir Joseph’s New Year.
No. No place for us in the New Year. Might as well die.
He sinks down slowly onto step, pounding himself on the head — a comic spectacle, but coming from deep despair. Suddenly he becomes aware of the letter in his hand. Pulls himself up.
Ah, the letter. Off we go.
Rises. Moves off in a circle through London, as Gentlemen appear, eating chestnuts in paper cones.
FIRST GENTLEMAN: Now I grant you he’s comical. But admit it: doesn’t it give you an odd feeling to watch one of these people?
FIRST GENTLEMAN: Nervous. I sympathize with the lower classes, if they stay in literature.
SECOND GENTLEMAN: That’s a horrible attitude.
FIRST GENTLEMAN: Widely shared.
Look at him: It’s the Old Year trotting off, on doddering legs, labouring through its rounds, cursed and scorned, as we turn all eyes on the New Year, trinkets and toys, inventions and almanac predictions—
Can you really say, “I loved the Old Year, it was full and well fed, I embraced it and it thrilled me”? No. We say, “The sooner the better, off with its head.”
We’ve left it too . . . hungry.
Gentlemen disappear. Toby delivers letter at Cute’s door. Comes down steps, stunned with fatigue. Checks his two sixpence. Starts to walk, immediately collides with a country man carrying baby in a blanket. Toby goes sprawling.
TOBY: Lord, I hope I haven’t hurt you?
WILL FERN: No, friend. You have not hurt me.
TOBY: Nor the child?
WILL FERN: Nor the child. Thank you kindly.
Fern helps Toby to his feet. Toby looks at the baby, tickles it, brightens up, starts to laugh, then a surge of grief. Starts to go.
Friend? You can tell me, perhaps . . . where Justice Cute lives.
TOBY: Right close by. I was there with a letter now. Right there.
WILL FERN: I was to have come before him tomorrow. But I want to clear myself, be free to go and seek my bread. So maybe he’ll forgive my coming to his house tonight.
TOBY: Your name’s Fern.
TOBY: Fern. Will Fern.
WILL FERN: That’s my name.
Toby retreats in a stumbling backward trot, as if he’d met the devil. In confusion, he points to the baby.
TOBY: He didn’t speak of the baby. You’ve a baby.
Toby takes off his hat, trots toward Fern.
No! Don’t go to him! Heaven’s sake, don’t go to him! He’ll stamp you out as sure as you’re born.
Puts hat over Fern’s face to conceal him from view. At last he draws Fern into the church door, whispers, gesturing dramatically. Fern nods, puts hand on his shoulder to stop him.
WILL FERN: It’s true enough. I have gone against his plans.
For myself, master, I never took with this hand what wasn’t my own. I never held it back from work, however hard.
But when work won’t maintain me like a human creature; when I’m hungry, out of doors and in; when I see a whole working life begin that way, go on that way, and end that way—
Then I say to the gentlefolks, “Let me be! My door’s dark enough without your shadows in it. Don’t give me your speeches. I’m best let alone!”
He sees the baby is awake. Stops, nuzzles her, mumbles, then looks at Toby.
I bear no ill-will. I only want to live like one of the Almighty’s creatures. I can’t. I don’t. And so there’s a pit dug between me, and them that can and do. There’s others like me. You might count’em by thousands.
I’ve got a bad name now. ‘Tan’t lawful to be out of sorts, and I am out of sorts.
I don’t know as this Justice could hurt me much by sending me to jail, but—
They both look at the baby.
TOBY: Beautiful face.
WILL FERN: I’ve thought so many times. I’ve thought when my hearth was cold and my cupboard very bare. ‘Tother night, when they took us like two thieves. But they shouldn’t wrinkle the little face too often, should they, Lilian?
I’m thankful to you, sir. I don’t know your name, but I’ll keep clear of this—
TOBY: —Justice.
WILL FERN: If that’s the name they give him. Justice. Good night. Happy New Year.
He starts to go. Toby holds him.
TOBY: The New Year— New Year, no, the child, you’ve no place—
Come home to me. No, that’s to say. . . No, but it’s a poor place, I can’t give you lodging, we’ve not got— But someone in London, someone, some—
It’s only we’ve all so much rabble all over the streets, stamp them out and— But with babies— I hadn’t schooling enough to make it out. You’re the exception, sir, you’re one of us and—
Come home to me. Come home.
Here. I’ll take her. Tell me if I go too quick. I’m very fast. Always was.
As they walk, a small room appears.
Here we go! Here we are, and here we go! Round the first turn to the right, Will Fern, past the pump, sharp up the passage, right at the public-house. Here we are and here we go! Down the Mews here, black door, “T. Veck, Ticket Porter” wrote upon the board.
And here we go and here we are surprising you, my precious Meg— Meg?
Stops suddenly. Meg sits by the fire, turns away sharply, drying tears.
MEG: Nothing.
TOBY: Richard?
MEG: I’ve not seen Richard. (seeing the baby) Oh!
Meg rises, takes the baby. As Toby bustles about, she mixes cup of milk and sugar, nurses it with finger dunked in milk.
TOBY: Here we go! Here, Will Fern, here’s a fire. Meg, darling, where’s the kettle?
MEG: (laughing) Poor little feet! We’ll rub’em, then we’ll wash that face, and then— Father!
TOBY: Here I am—
MEG: That’s right, put the bonnet on the kettle and hang the lid on the door!
TOBY: Meg, my pet, if you make the tea, while I toast the rasher, we shall be ready, immediate.
Checks the larder for food. There’s almost nothing. He takes a moment, prepares to tell an absolute lie.
Now it’s a curious circumstance, curious, but well known to my friends, that I never care, myself, for rashers nor for tea. I like to see other people enjoy’em, but to me, as food, they’re disagreeable.
WILL FERN: Bless you, sir.
TOBY: Never did care for it. Now I’ll tell you what. The little one, she sleeps by Meg. Will Fern, we’re in the loft. Not much of a place, coachhouse, but we live here cheap. There’s hay, very clean. Meg can make it up. Your wife alive, sir?
WILL FERN: I never had one. She’s my brother’s child: a orphan.
They’d have took her, the county, eight-and-twenty-mile from where we live, between four walls, where they took my old father when he couldn’t work. He didn’t trouble’em long. But I took her instead.
Her mother had a friend once, in London here. We are trying to find her. Her name was Anne.
TOBY: Anne?
TOBY: In London here?
WILL FERN: Ay. It’s a larger town than I thought.
TOBY: Ah but the New Year, it’s— What am I rambling on? Cheer up. Don’t give way. A New Heart for the New Year.
SPEAKER: And he did take the tiniest morsel, just for form’s sake. . .
Fern notices Toby staring at the plate, offers. Toby declines, then takes a tiny piece, eats it with relish. Meg kisses him, holds baby to kiss.
And they were happy. Very happy, although. . .
TOBY: (to himself) I fear the match is broken off.
SPEAKER: Then he led out William Fern as tenderly as a child. He listened to Meg’s prayers, and the baby making sounds as if to pray. And he thought he heard his name.
Then he mended the fire, trimmed the light, took out his paper, began to read . . . and there it was again.
His own hospitality, a man’s care of a child, his daughter’s prayers, the love that filled his heart— That wasn’t in the news. Only the grime and sewage of the day. The ignorance, filth of the people, his people, his class of people, his daughter, himself.
He reads. The two Gentlemen appear at side, one reading from paper.
FIRST GENTLEMAN: Wait. Here’s the sort of thing you like. Pure gloom. Here.
“An unidentified young woman was found Bankside yesterday, drowned, her fair limbs broken, face disfigured. Witnesses had seen her on London Bridge, in hot and maddened fury, first cast her infant into the Thames, and then herself.
“Her second child, a girl of two years old, died with her little hands clasped about her mother’s neck.” And it goes on. . . “Frail wretches who live in nameless, shameless” and so on. “Too outrageous to have been perpetrated by any human being.”
TOBY: Unnatural. Unnatural.
FIRST GENTLEMAN: Now that’s your Old Year for you. But here’s the New:
“Dyspepsia of ten years’ standing cured. Wright’s Indian Vegetable Pills ease this distressing complaint. None are right but Wright’s.”
You see? There’s a bright side.
TOBY: Meg’s age.
SECOND GENTLEMAN: Who could do such things?
FIRST GENTLEMAN: Bad people, I suppose—
TOBY: Born bad—
FIRST GENTLEMAN: Bad at heart—
TOBY: No right to be born!
Chimes ring, continuing. Gentlemen disappear. Meg returns.
Meg? Hear it?
MEG: The Chimes, Father. They’re loud tonight.
TOBY: She asleep?
MEG: Sound. She kept hold of my finger.
TOBY: Listen. You hear?
MEG: Yes. . .
TOBY: Hear it? “Toby Veck, Toby Veck. . .”
Meg laughs, hugs him, then looks at him uncertainly, goes out. Bells continue. Toby rises, infirm, as if seasick.
“Toby Veck, Toby Veck, waiting for you Toby. . . ”Come and see us, come and see us, door wide open, Toby. . ."
It’s only Chimes . . . asking . . . What’s the use of it all!
Toby covers his head, agonized.
SPEAKER: And he thought, "Well if the church door’s open, hadn’t I ought to go up and— For what? Only for seeing if . . .
“And if it’s shut, no matter. But when I’m called, I go. That’s my job.”
He weaves out the door, as if in a dream.
TOBY: Course it’s shut and locked, you know the door every inch— Iron hinges, lock, more hinge and lock than door. I’d best check. So many doors. . .
He is in the street, approaching church door. The Chimes contain voices.
SPEAKER: He’s out the room. He’s down in the street. He’s by the portal. He touches the door. It stands ajar.
Toby startles. Gingerly touches it, starts to push. It opens.
TOBY: They forgot to shut the door. They’ll have all the rabble in here, vermin and rabble, all over London, not even paying rent. . . Stamp them out. . .
Enters, groping in the dark. A narrow, endless stairway appears, behind. In mime, isolated in light, he gropes for a foothold, begins to climb, missing rungs, falling back. Voices within the Chimes begin to chant.
Up and up. Never liked steep stairs.
VOICES: Up, up, up and up, higher, higher, up—
TOBY: Might fall—
Feet slip, he catches himself. Tries to clear his head. Continues.
VOICES: Up, up, up and up, higher, higher, up—
TOBY: I am!
Climbs as voices continue.
VOICES: Up, up, up and up, higher, higher, up—
Up, my man, or we’ll Stamp you Out! Doorsteps isn’t a pigsty is it?
Up, up, up and up, higher, higher, up—
Turned out of doors and wander the streets. Higher, higher, higher, dear.
Up, up, up and up, higher, higher, up—
Bell ropes appear from above. Toby becomes tangled, cries out.
TOBY: Bell-rope. I thought it was hair on somebody’s head.
VOICES: Up, up, up and up, higher, higher, up—
Nice babies indeed, with crooked legs! Stamp them Out! We’re young yet, Father, we can climb—
Up, up, up and up, higher, higher, up—
The Good Old Times, the Good Old Times! A larger town than I thought. Corn prices high and the wages low.
Up, up, up and up, higher, higher, up—
First cast her infant into the Thames, and then herself—
Sudden silence.
SPEAKER: And he came among the Chimes.
Toby clings desperately to ladder. The shapes of Chimes appear from above, overwhelming. Toby sees them, loses footing, grasps ladder tightly. Dead silence.
TOBY: (barely able to whisper) Holl-oo. . .
Flight of shadows. The Chimes reveal huge, gaping shadow eyes and mouths. Burst of howls, laughter, clanging echoes. Toby flails as if creatures swarm on him. Dangling from ladder, Toby cries out:
Act Two
The stage is dark, except for one spot of center light, illuminating Toby, fallen flat. Faint echoes. The Speaker appears.
SPEAKER: What did he see?
Deep from the Sea of Thought rose monsters uncouth and wild, dwarf phantoms flying, leaping, spilling from the Chimes.
The Sea of Hope, around, above, in windows, in walls, spreading in rippling circles away, away.
The Sea of Faces in Dreams, beautiful, ugly, crippled or young, merry and grim, dancing and singing and crying in dreams, in a great city’s dreams.
The Sea of Memory, marriages, funerals, elections and babies and brawls, the feel of the heaviest boot and the softest hand, all alive in the endless, restless Chimes.
Crescendo of echoes. Low, distant pealing. The Speaker dons a heavy, hooded cloak, becoming the Great Bell. Lights up dimly on distant, hooded figures: Spirits of the Chimes. Their voices form a low harmony.
BELL: What man is this?
TOBY: I thought you called my name. I listen to the Chimes these many years. They cheer me often.
BELL: And you thank us?
TOBY: A thousand times.
BELL: How?
TOBY: I’m a poor man. I thank you in words.
BELL: Always?
TOBY: Except . . . if I shiver too much to talk.
BELL: Never do us wrong?
BELL: Never false and wicked wrong?
TOBY: Nev—
Stops, thinks. Tips hat in absent apology.
BELL: The voice of Time cries to humankind, Advance!
Ages have passed, uncountable millions lived and died, to light the way.
Who seeks to block his course confronts a mighty tide and is swept away.
TOBY: I never did so, sir. I stand back in the door so as not to block the sidewalk.
BELL: Who hears in the Chimes a call for the Good Old Times—
A call that drags man backward, hating his present years—
Who does this, does a wrong. You do that wrong, to us, the Chimes.
TOBY: Now if you knew how often you cheer me— And Meg, when her mother died, and she and me were alone— If you see what I mean?
Ends with a lame, despairing wave.
BELL: Who hears in us, the Chimes, a scorn for any sorrow—
Who hears us echo the earth’s dull vermin, the Stampers Out of broken souls—
Who does this, does a wrong. You do that wrong, to us, the Chimes.
TOBY: Not meaning it! If I hear it all round me, every man that hires me— I’m a porter, see, I carry the words I’m given. What they mean, that’s more than I know.
BELL: More than all:
Who turns his back on the fallen, abandons them as vile, bad people, born bad, bad at heart—
Who curses the people, his people, his class of people, himself—
Who does this, does wrong to man and Heaven.
You have done that wrong!
Toby covers his face. Silence. Then he looks up.
TOBY: Now look, see— I’m just a poor man, I don’t know but what I read in the papers, I only try to live— It’s no difference what I think. Why don’t you go after the great gentlemen? No use to bring down a whole Grand Opera on my head—
BELL: Listen!
VOICES: Listen!
Toby hits the floor again, terrified. Sounds of mourning. Meg’s shadow.
TOBY: She’s dead. Meg is dead. I hear it.
BELL: Your child bewails the dead. But she lives.
Learn from her, the creature nearest your heart, how bad those born bad are born.
Follow her! To the precipice!
Toby reels away, as if falling. Meg’s shadow flees, disappears. Toby’s shadow falls toward him as he falls toward the shadow. Both freeze against the screen, arms akimbo, frozen.
TOBY: Myself?
BELL: What he calls himself.
TOBY: Dead?
BELL: Dead.
TOBY: Then— I missed my way, and— Down the steeple stairs, in the dark, fell down— When? Now? Last week? A year ago?
BELL: Twelve years.
Flight of shadows: a menagerie of characters, rushing, seeking.
TOBY: What is it? Bats? Get away! I’m dead!
BELL: Spirits of the Bells, taking shapes the hopes of mortals give them.
TOBY: Hopes? What hopes? Whose hopes? My hopes?
VOICES: The New Year, the years, the many New Years, all come in an hour.
Hear the Chimes ring each quarter. Hear it!
Chimes ring the quarter hour. Great Bell removes his cloak, becomes the Speaker.
SPEAKER: They took him to the highest pinnacle the human spirit could attain:
The birthday of Lady Bowley of Bowley Hall, Sir Joseph’s grand festivity, Friend and Father of the Poor.
Lady Bowley, born on New Year’s Day, a harbinger of blessings to come.
Music, chatter. Shadows of aristocratic party, moving as clockwork figures. Toby wanders, confused. Sir Joseph appears in silhouette, walking with cane.
SIR JOSEPH: Welcome, dear friends, to all of you with a . . . legitimate right to exist!
TOBY: Meg and Richard. . . Where are they? They must be here, everyone with a legitimate right—
Lady Bowley appears, carrying baby, elaborately bundled. She sees Toby.
LADY BOWLEY: What are you doing here? There’s pudding for you outside. We let you people in after dinner.
Sir Joseph comes forward.
SIR JOSEPH: Here he is! What a sweet child. Like his grandpapa. Little Lord Bowley! Makes me feel young again!
Reminds me of . . . old King Hal, stout King Hal, bluff King Hal. The Good Old Times! Marrying women and murdering them.
We shall have this little gentleman in Parliament. We shall hear of his little orations, his little . . . achievements.
We shall have generations of Bowleys!
TOBY: Oh the difference of shoes and stockings. He’ll not run wild and litter the streets.
TUGBY: Attention please! Sir Joseph will play a match at skittles.
TOBY: Skittle-playing. Look at that! A Baronet playing at skittles, just like a human being. Shows he understands the common man.
Richard, where is he? I can’t find Richard. Meg? I don’t understand.
Oh. It’s the shadows. I see. They show me what’s to happen.
Shadows dance as clockwork. Lady Bowley goes. Tugby approaches.
TUGBY: Sir Joseph?
SIR JOSEPH: Yes, my man.
TUGBY: Sir Joseph. The most dreadful circumstance.
SIR JOSEPH: My good fellow!
TUGBY: Deedles, the banker— Deedles Brothers— Solid rock of the Exchange—
TUGBY: Shot himself.
TUGBY: Blew out his brains.
SIR JOSEPH: Unbelievable.
TUGBY: Impossible.
SIR JOSEPH: Unimaginable! His brains?
TUGBY: At tea time. Scones and jam.
SIR JOSEPH: A world without Deedles! Oh the mysteries of Man!
TOBY: Don’t take it hard, sir. You did your best. Your friend the Justice, he tried to Stamp it Out. The lady what tried to hang herself, he sent her to the workhouse. He showed her the benefits of living.
SIR JOSEPH: Oh but why? But why?
TUGBY: A fall in securities.
SIR JOSEPH: Ah. He had a motive then. That’s reassuring.
TUGBY: Comforting.
SIR JOSEPH: Edifying.
TUGBY: Inspiring.
SIR JOSEPH: Heartwarming. A proper start to the New Year!
Shadows flurry, disappear. Toby gropes, searching for Meg.
TOBY: Meg? Where are they? They must be here, where it’s happy.
Shadow of Sir Joseph and others, frozen in party attitudes.
SIR JOSEPH: My Friends, on this great occasion of . . . (Mumbles. Crowd cheers.) As your perpetual Friend and Father. . . (Mumbles. Crowd cheers.) To the Dignity of Labour. . . (Mumbles. Crowd cheers.) The Institution of the Family. . . (Mumbles. Crowd cheers.) The Imperative of the Established Moral Order. . . (Mumbles. Crowd cheers.) And my dearest Lady Bowley!
Will Fern appears, front. Shadow of Sir Joseph reacts.
What is this? Who admitted this man? This is a criminal from prison! Go out and eat your pudding!
WILL FERN: A minute! One minute’s leave to speak! Gentlefolks, you’ve toasted the Labourer. Now look at me!
SIR JOSEPH: Direct from jail.
WILL FERN: Direct from jail. And not for the first time, nor the second, nor the third, nor yet the fourth.
SIR JOSEPH: Four times is over the average.
WILL FERN: Gentlefolks, you see I’m at the worst. The time when you could do me good is gone, like the scent of last year’s clover on the wind.
Now hear the Truth spoke out for once.
SIR JOSEPH: There’s not a man here who—
WILL FERN: Who’d have me speak for’em. Like enough, Sir Joseph. Perhaps that’s a proof of what I say.
Gentlefolk, I lived many years in this place. Tis hard, gentlefolk, to grow up decent in a cottage open to cold.
That I growed up a man and not a brute says something for me, as I was then. As I am now, I’m past it.
SIR JOSEPH: I am glad this man has entered. It appears to be Ordained. He is a living example to my Friends and Children.
WILL FERN: You closed us out of the common fields, you raised the rents, your machines took over our weaving, your tariffs upped the price of bread!—
Now, gentlemen, when you see a man with discontent writ on his face, you says, “Watch that fellow. I has my doubts,” says you, “about Will Fern.”
I don’t say it an’t natural, but I say ‘tis so, and from that hour you say it, whatever Will Fern does, it goes against him.
SIR JOSEPH: Human nature!
WILL FERN: Now gentlemen, see how your laws are set to trap us.
I tries to live elsewhere. So I’m a vagabond. To jail with him! I comes back here, I gathers nuts in your woods. To jail with him!
I cuts a stick. To jail with him! I eats a rotten apple or a turnip. To jail with him!
The constable finds me anywhere, and I’m looking discontent, to jail with him, for he’s a known vagrant and a jail-bird, and jail’s the home he’s got.
SIR JOSEPH: A very good home too!
WILL FERN: Do I say it to serve myself? Who can give me back my good name, or my niece? My baby? Lilian. . .
Not all the Lords and Ladies in England.
Toby hesitantly reaches out toward Fern, at a distance.
But gentlefolk, dealing with other men, begin it right. Give us warmer rooms when we’re a-lying in our cradles; give us better food when we’re a-working for our lives; give us kinder laws to bring us back if we’re going wrong; and don’t set Jail, Jail, Jail, afore us everywhere we turn.
We has a patient, peaceful, willing heart, but it’s near to gone. Bring it back, gentlefolk, bring it back!
Bring it back, afore the day comes when even his Bible changes in his mind, and the words seem to read, as they do read to me: “Whither thou goest, I can not go; where thou lodgest, I do not lodge; thy people are not my people; nor thy God my God!”
Chimes ring. All vanish. Toby stands alone.
SPEAKER: Ring the half hour! It’s the next year’s party come round.
Shadows dance.
TOBY: Another year? Where’s Meg? Richard? They must be here—
Lights on a barren room. Meg stands in door, watchful. Shadows freeze, fade.
TOBY: My darling. Darling Meg. . . Changed.
SPEAKER: Changed.
TOBY: Her hair’s the same.
Meg sits, starts needlework. Shadow of teenage Lilian, distant. Meg stops, takes out folded letter, opens it, reads.
MEG: “Do read this, as you’re the one that taught me to write. . .”
“From the time I was a baby, and my uncle left me with you, I remember your eyes, beaming with hope, so bright—
“But your days, the work, the long, long nights of hopeless, cheerless work to earn bare bread. Oh Meg. . .”
Drops letter, closes eyes, speaks a remembered conversation.
MEG: Lilian?
LILLIAN: Why do you look that way?
MEG: How do I look?
LILLIAN: Why not smile?
MEG: I do.
LILLIAN: But not usual. When you think I don’t look, you’re so worried I can’t stand to look. You were so cheerful once.
MEG: Do I make our life more weary to you, Lily?
LILLIAN: You’re all that made it life!
With great effort, Meg returns to letter.
TOBY: Who’s that? Is that the baby? Lilian? Will Fern’s baby? Who?
MEG: “Meg. Think good of me. I must not be a burden to you more. I must earn my way, being old enough— It’s only to live.”
Lilian’s shadow fades. Knock at door. Richard appears: a derelict. She rises, stands at opposite side of room.
RICHARD: May I come in, Margaret?
MEG: Come in.
TOBY: That’s Richard?
Richard sits. Meg stands at distance.
RICHARD: Still at work. You work late.
MEG: I do.
RICHARD: And early?
MEG: Early.
RICHARD: So she said. She told me you never tired, or so you said. She told me you gave her a mother’s care— But I told you that, last time I came.
MEG: You did. And you made me a solemn promise, Richard, you’d never talk of it.
RICHARD: A solemn promise. . . How can I help it, Margaret? She came to me again.
MEG: Again!
RICHARD: Twenty times again.
Meg, she haunts me. She comes behind me in the street and shoves money in my hand. When I’m at my work — which an’t often — I hear a footstep and her voice, “For Heaven’s love, give her this!”
She brings it where I sleep. She sends it in letters. She lays it on the sill. “For her. For her to live like a human creature. Give it to her.”
Holds out money. Meg flinches.
MEG: When she comes again, tell her I love her, I bless her, I pray in my soul. That she’s with me night and day. That if I died tomorrow, my last breath would be her name. But that I cannot take the money she receives!
RICHARD: I told her so. I’ve took it back a dozen times. But when she came and stood before me, face to face—
MEG: Lilian!
TOBY: That’s the baby? Will Fern’s baby?
RICHARD: There she stood. “How does she look, Richard? Is she thinner? She still have trouble with her eyes? My old place at the table, is it there?”
“Richard,” she said, “I am fallen very low. You loved Meg dearly once, I remember. You did love her. . .”
I suppose I did. That’s neither here nor there.
“Richard, if you ever did, take it to her. Tell her you saw my face, and the looks are gone. All gone. Tell her, and take the money. She’ll not refuse again.”
He starts to put the money on the chair. She screams in rage. Silence.
You’ll not take it, Meg?
MEG: She was a baby. . .
RICHARD: She’s grown up now. Thirteen.
MEG: She was a baby. . .
RICHARD: Now she’s old.
He goes out. Toby reaches toward Meg. Knock. Shadow of Lilian.
MEG: Lilian!
LILIAN: I’m dying, Meg.
MEG: What?
LILIAN: Nothing special. Infection.
MEG: No. . .
LILIAN: Forgive me, Meg. I know you do, but say it, Meg.
MEG: Yes!
LILIAN: Soon it’s a whole New Year. I’m better out of it.
Shadow extends its arms, becomes the crucifix of a grave. Meg starts up.
TOBY: Meg!
Almost hearing, she turns toward him. He opens his arms. She stops, confused, unable to see him. Sinks into chair. Scene disappears. Toby slumps on curb. Chimes ring the three-quarter hour.
Meg. . . No. It’s one of those dreams. Must be the tripe, what I ate of it. Never meant for stomachs like mine. Or the play we saw, where they all got killed, “Hamlet the Moor of Venice.” I dreamed on that very bad.
No, in the play they bring in funny things, so you laugh. Say if he’s dead, but that’s to his advantage, then he doesn’t get dripped on—
Gets dripped on. Wipes his neck.
To be or not to be. Doesn’t matter. Think about happy things—
New setting appears. Cosy hearth, a couple seated by fire.
This is better. Look at this. Cosy fire, cups and saucers, it’s good fortune coming, sure. It’s— It’s Mrs. Chickenstalker. It is. And her shop. There it is.
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: You did the re-orders, Tugby?
TOBY: Tugby again?
TUGBY: Yes, my dear: Cheese, butter, matches, bacon, pickles and beer—
Salt, vinegar, soap, bird-seed, blacking, herring, sweetmeats, laces and lard—
Mushroom-ketchup, kites, brooms, packthread, onions, brushes and eggs—
Tea, coffee, candles, tobacco, pepper and snuff!
TOBY: And the credit accounts behind the parlour-door, my name at the top. No. Not there. Not many others neither. She must deal now in ready cash.
TUGBY: What sort of a night is it, Anne?
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: Blowing and sleeting hard. Dark. Very cold.
TUGBY: I’m glad we had muffins. It’s a night meant for muffins.
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: You’re in spirits, Tugby, my dear.
TUGBY: I’m a little elevated. The muffins came so pat.
TOBY: It’s one of those Tugbys. They’re everywhere. They’re in swarms. He’s done all right for himself. Glad to see somebody has.
Tugby has dissolved in a laughing fit. She pounds him on the back.
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: Lord-a-mercy bless and save the man!
TUGBY: A little elevated!
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: Well don’t be so again, there’s a dear.
TUGBY: So it’s blowing, and sleeting, and dark and very cold, my dear?
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: Hard weather indeed.
TUGBY: Aye. Years are like Christians. Some die hard, some die easy. This one’s near expired, and is making a fight.
TOBY: It’s good to see people jolly. Good people, warm by the fire. Warms the heart.
TUGBY: There’s a customer, love.
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: (to door) What’s wanted? Oh pardon, sir, I didn’t know it was you.
Health Warden, in black, appears from an inner door.
WARDEN: This is bad business upstairs, Mrs. Tugby. The man can’t live.
TUGBY: The back-attic can’t?
WARDEN: The back-attic, Mr. Tugby, is coming downstairs fast. He’ll be under the basement very soon. The back-attic, Mr. Tugby, is going.
TUGBY: Then he must go, you know, before he’s gone.
WARDEN: You’d better leave him where he is. He can’t live long.
TUGBY: That’s the one subject we ever had a word on, she and me. Look what it comes to. He’s going to die on the premises!
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: And where should he die, Tugby?
TUGBY: In the workhouse. What are workhouses for?
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: Not for that! Don’t think it, Tugby. I won’t have it. I’d be separated first, and never see your face again.
When my widow’s name stood over that door, Mrs. Chickenstalker’s shop, I knew the man as a steady youth. I knew her as the sweetest-looking girl eyes ever saw. I knew her father, poor creature — fell down from the steeple walking in his sleep — for the simplest, childest-hearted man that ever drew breath of life.
And when I turn them out of house and home, may angels boot me out of Heaven! Serve me right!
TOBY: Oh bless her. . .
Tugby starts to light a cigar. Mrs. Chickenstalker takes it out of his mouth.
TUGBY: That’s my cigar.
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: Not in the house of a dying man.
TUGBY: He’d best be dying soon.
WARDEN: The woman. How did she come to marry him?
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: Why you see they kept company, she and Richard, years ago. They were to be married on a New Year’s Day.
But Richard got it into his head he’d soon repent it, and she talked of how she wasn’t good enough, and her children might all get Stamped Out.
And their trust was broken, and so was the match. And then he went wrong.
WARDEN: Went wrong?
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: He took to drinking.
This went on, she wearing her life away, tried to support a girl that wasn’t even her kin, and the girl went bad. And him, all doors were shut upon him, go where he would.
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: Well sir, he came to her, he kneeled and made her a prayer to save him.
TUGBY: Save him! Mmh!
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: She asked about living here.
“What he was once to me,” she said, “is buried with what I was to him. But I will try. For the sake of a light-hearted girl who was to marry on New Year’s Day, and for the love of her Richard.”
So they married.
WARDEN: I suppose he beat her?
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: I don’t think he ever did. But he soon fell back.
I think he always loved her. I’ve seen him in these weeks try to kiss her hand, call her “Meg,” wish her happy nineteenth birthday.
He’s laid there weeks and months. Between him and her baby—
TOBY: Baby?
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: The one thing he give her. But she’s lost her old work. How they’ve lived, I hardly know.
TUGBY: I know. Like animals.
WARDEN: My friend, you needn’t worry to remove him. He has spared you that trouble, I think.
Scene reveals Meg standing over bed, Richard dead. She holds a baby. Warden walks into the scene, followed by others. Checks pulse, covers Richard. Mrs. Chickenstalker embraces Meg.
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: It’s better so. It’s better.
TUGBY: Come, come, that won’t do. You must have courage. When I was porter, and a coach overturned outside our door, women and children screaming outside the door, I fell back on my will power and courage, and kept it shut.
Toby approaches, touches baby gingerly.
TOBY: Little baby. . .
WARDEN: (checking it) Sickly. Feed it better, you hear me?
TOBY: A baby. Thank God. Oh God be thanked.
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: Something to live for—
TOBY: So pretty—
TOBY: Dimples—
WARDEN: Pinched, crinkled face—
TOBY: Laughing—
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: Thin little whine—
TOBY: Look at it, it looked at me. Hello! It sees its grandpa. She loves it! God be thanked, something to love!
He flits around the child, touching it, reacting, laughing. Others disappear, leaving Meg and Toby.
Listen to it! Making its cries. Middle of night, it holds up its hands. It’s day. Now it’s night. And it’s day. And it’s night. And the day and the night.
Remembering, he relives cradling a baby, trying to sit down, hearing it wail, standing up, walking, as Meg goes through the same actions.
When Meg was a baby, I’d be so tired. . . She’d not let me sit down. She could tell. She’d say, “No, I’m your little baby, you’ll not fool me!” And look, you can see the love! It proves it. Some are born bad, and some born good. She loves her baby. Girl baby? Boy or girl? Girl?
VOICES: The creature dearest your heart. . .
Meg starts moving with baby in arms. A shadow figure moves parallel, simultaneously, trapped in a maze. Other shadows wander in slow motion.
SPEAKER: She looks for work. Any work for any wretched sum. She goes cold. She hears the baby cry for food. While the party goes on.
She hears the couple quarrel on her account. She puts up with cruelty, she puts up with pity.
If she’d neglected it, yelled at it, all of a sudden struck it—
No. She loves it.
TOBY: She loves it still. Loves it more and more. New Year coming, Meg. Hup, cover the face, it’s raining. No, snow.
Toby tries to shield baby with his hat.
SPEAKER: One morning, last day of another Old Year. She dressed the baby’s rags with special care. Once more looked for work. She tried till night, and never ate.
She comes to a door, is met by one of the universal Tugbys. Door slam. Continues moving. Another door, another Tugby. Same.
She stood in a crowd in the snow to apply for the public charity.
Another door. Tugby gives her a paper to sign.
She gave her name, signed a paper, was told to return next week.
Tugby gestures. Meg, desperate, enraged:
MEG: My baby is hungry!
TUGBY: Be hungry next week.
Door slam. She turns, confused.
TOBY: Meg, look! They’re still dancing! Isn’t it fine?
Tries to mimic the dance. For a moment she sees him, giggles. Laughing, he continues to clown.
Spin like skittles!
She laughs. Sudden halt as she sees Will Fern.
WILL FERN: Last time, Meg.
MEG: William Fern.
TOBY: Will Fern. . .
WILL FERN: (not seeing Toby) Last time. Maggie, my race is near run. I couldn’t end without a word.
MEG: What have you done?
WILL FERN: Gone mad.
It’s long ago, Maggie, now. But that night is as fresh in my memory. When I came to your hearth with. . . with my. . .
Your child, Margaret? Let me have it in my arms. Let me hold your child.
She hesitates, then lets him take it.
See how weak I’m grown. I lack courage to look. Is it a girl?
MEG: Yes.
WILL FERN: Let her be. I won’t hurt her. What’s her name?
MEG: Margaret.
Will Fern looks at infant’s face. Covers face again. Meg takes baby.
WILL FERN: She’s like Lilian.
MEG: Lilian. . .
WILL FERN: Same face in my arms when Lilian’s mother died and left her.
MEG: Died and left her. . .
WILL FERN: Margaret?
Margaret, for the last time I thank you, for all the years— All the years you raised her, when I was to prison.
Now put your hand in mine, and tell me you’ll forget me from this hour.
MEG: What have you done?
TOBY: What have you done?
WILL FERN: There’ll be a Fire tonight.
There’ll be Fires this winter-time, to light the dark nights, East, West, North and South.
There’ll be Fires to light their fine feasts in the New Year’s nights.
When you see the far sky red, remember what a Hell they lighted in me.
When you see the far sky red, we’re scorching the clouds.
He goes out. She stares at baby.
TOBY: It’s night, Meg. Go home. Love your baby. Something will come tomorrow. Tomorrow’s a New Year.
MEG: Like Lilian. . .
VOICES: The creature dearest your heart. . .
Meg moves suddenly, meets Tugby, blocking doorway to the house.
TUGBY: Oh. You’ve come back. Don’t you think you have lived here long enough now without paying rent? Don’t you think you’ve been a pretty steady customer at this particular shop?
Suppose you try somewheres else. Suppose you find another lodging. Don’t you think you could manage it?
MEG: It’s late. Tomorrow.
TUGBY: Oh now I see what you want. You know there’s two parties in this house, and you delight to cause strife between’em. I don’t want quarrels — I’m speaking softly to prevent a quarrel — but if you wish, I’ll speak out loud, and you shall cause words strong enough to please you. But you shan’t come in.
This is the last night of an Old Year, and I won’t carry ill-blood and quarrellings into a New One. I wonder you an’t ashamed. Look at that poor little baby. What kind of mother are you, can’t provide for her baby? If you haven’t honest business in the world, then better you be out of it.
Door slams. Meg wanders forward, confused, unfocused.
MEG: Like Lilian. Lilian. Better out of it.
TOBY: Meg?
MEG: Lilian. Better out.
SPEAKER: She wraps the baby warm. She smoothes its face. She cradles it. She kisses it. She rests its face against her.
Speaker dons the cloak of the Great Bell. First Gentleman appears, reading paper. Chimes begin to toll midnight.
“Unidentified young woman, drowned. First cast her infant into the Thames, and then herself. Too outrageous for any human being.”
BELL: Who could do such deeds?
VOICES: Those who are bad.
Bad at heart.
Born bad.
No right to be born.
TOBY: Meg!
BELL: Dearest your heart. . .
TOBY: Where does she go? Turn her back!
As the Chimes toll, Meg starts to run through streets, clutching her baby. Shadows echo her flight. Speaker removes cloak.
SPEAKER: To the river, swift and dim, like the last dark thoughts of those who seek lodging there.
Scattered lights on the banks gleamed sullen, red and dull.
He tried to touch her as she passed him. Her fierce and terrible love swept by him like the wind.
He followed her. She came to the brink—
Toby rushes to stop her, falls sprawling. She halts, slowly approaches a distant embankment. Toby reaches out to her, crawls toward her, inches at a time. She halts at the edge.
TOBY: Oh save her!
SPEAKER: “All the rabble, they’ll never change!”
SPEAKER: “That’s the class of people they are.”
TOBY: Mercy on her!
SPEAKER: “Rabble all over the streets, with babies—”
TOBY: From desperation!
SPEAKER: “Unnatural.”
TOBY: No! Heaven meant us to be good! Heaven made us good! There’s no loving mother on earth who mightn’t do the same, if they had such a life.
MEG: It’s a New Year, Lily. Hold tight.
She prepares to leap. At the last toll of the Chimes, Toby reaches, grasps her hand. She feels his touch, slowly collapses to her knees. He embraces her.
SPEAKER: If he’d had the words, he might have said more:
“I know that our heritage is held in store by Time.
“I know there’s a sea of Time to rise, before which all who wrong us are swept away like sand. I see it, on the flow.
“I know we must trust and hope, neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the good in one another. I have learnt it from the creature dearest to me.
“O Spirits, Chimes, I hear you. Sing in my heart!”
Bells peal. Lights fade, then up. Meg and Toby have reversed positions, she holding him as if she’s shaken him awake. Scene appears behind.
MEG: Whatever you do, Father, don’t ever again eat tripe. It doesn’t agree with you. How you have been going on, good gracious!
Toby is confused. Reaches out to touch her. Looks around at room. Cries out, laughs. Moves about, touches the furniture, flies toward her, trips. Richard appears, helps him to his feet, embraces Meg.
RICHARD: No! Not even you. Meg’s first New Year’s kiss is mine. Meg, my precious prize, a happy year! A life of happy years, my darling wife!
They embrace. Toby sits down, beats his knees, cries out, laughs. Jumps from chair, hugs Meg, hugs Richard, sits down, gets up, hugs them both. Runs up to Meg, squeezes her face, kisses her, hugs.
MEG: Father, what is it!
TOBY: And tomorrow’s your wedding-day, pet! Your real, live, happy wedding-day!
RICHARD: Today! Today. The Chimes are ringing in the New Year. Listen!
TOBY: But today, my pet, that is, yesterday, you and Richard had some words today, or yesterday—
MEG: Because he’s such a bad fellow, Father. He’d have made no more of speaking his mind to that great Justice, and Stamping him Out, than he would of—
RICHARD: Kissing Meg.
Kisses her.
TOBY: But, you were crying by the fire, my pet! Why did you cry for?
MEG: I was thinking of the years we’ve passed together, Father. That you might miss me, and be lonely.
Will Fern appears, carrying baby.
TOBY: Why, here she is! Lilian! Here we are and here we go! And Uncle Will! The dreams I’ve had tonight, by lodging you! Here we are and here we go!
WILL FERN: A Happy New Year, Meg! Happy Wedding! Many of’em! That’s to say—
Mrs. Chickenstalker enters.
MEG: Mrs. Chickenstalker!
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: Married, and not tell me, Meg! Never! There an’t a soul that knows you that don’t wish you well. Or that knows your man and don’t wish him well. Or that knows you both, and don’t wish you both all the happiness—
I couldn’t miss it, not if I’d been dead and full of worms.
So as it’s New Year’s Eve, and the Eve of your wedding too, my dear, I had a little punch made, and brought it with me.
TOBY: Where’s Tugby?
MEG: Who?
TOBY: Where’s Tugby? I’ll pull off his ears. I’ll boil his head. I’ll—
Looks around, realizes he’s talking about his dream.
I’ll make a fool of myself if I don’t watch out. Ah, Mrs. Tugby— Chickenstalker— Bless your heart and soul! Happy New Year, many of’em! This is William Fern and Lilian.
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: Not Fern from Dorsetshire!
He rises apprehensively. Mrs. Chickenstalker is speechless, stupified and dumbstruck. She gestures, trying to get the words out. At last:
MRS. CHICKENSTALKER: I was her mother’s friend.
TOBY: Anne?
Embraces Fern.
TOBY: Not the friend you was hoping to find?
WILL FERN: Ay! And like to prove as good a friend, if that can be, as one I found tonight.
TOBY: Oh! If we had music now! Music for the wedding!
Very distant fiddle, growing louder.
Listen. You hear it? They’re playing somewheres. It’s in the air. We strain our ears and listen hard . . . and now it’s our music too.
Lively dance music. All dance, Toby in center, flailing arms in joy. The music stops, and they gather around the punchbowl as Chimes toll.
SPEAKER: Had Trotty . . . Toby . . . dreamed?
Or are his joys and sorrows only a dream, himself a dream, the teller of this tale a dreamer, ready to wake?
If so, please, I beg you: Bear in mind the cold realities from which these shadows are cast in the year of your own century Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Three.
So may the year be new and bright to every soul whose gladness rests in you.
May this Year ring the song of the Chimes.
And may our brothers and sisters, one and all, near and far, high and very low, share that song that our Great Creator formed them to sing.
Music up. Cast comes forward into curtain call.