Copyright
George Bernard Shaw.

Back to Methuselah online

. (page 22 of 26)
Online LibraryGeorge Bernard ShawBack to Methuselah → online text (page 22 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


enough to be measured by the flustered congregation, but enough to
affect them with a dreadful sense of her supernaturalness._

ZOO. Get up, get up. Do pull yourselves together, you people.

_The Envoy and his family, by shuddering negatively, intimate that it
is impossible. The Elderly Gentleman manages to get on his hands and
knees._

ZOO. Come on, Daddy: you are not afraid. Speak to her. She wont wait
here all day for you, you know.

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN [_rising very deferentially to his feet_] Madam:
you will excuse my very natural nervousness in addressing, for the first
time in my life, a - a - a - a goddess. My friend and relative the Envoy is
unhinged. I throw myself upon your indulgence -

ZOO [_interrupting him intolerantly_] Dont throw yourself on anything
belonging to her or you will go right through her and break your neck.
She isnt solid, like you.

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. I was speaking figuratively -

ZOO. You have been told not to do it. Ask her what you want to know; and
be quick about it.

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN [_stooping and taking the prostrate Envoy by the
shoulders_] Ambrose: you must make an effort. You cannot go back to
Baghdad without the answers to your questions.

THE ENVOY [_rising to his knees_] I shall be only too glad to get back
alive on any terms. If my legs would support me I'd just do a bunk
straight for the ship.

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. No, no. Remember: your dignity -

THE ENVOY. Dignity be damned! I'm terrified. Take me away, for God's
sake.

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN [_producing a brandy flask and taking the cap
off_] Try some of this. It is still nearly full, thank goodness!

THE ENVOY [_clutching it and drinking eagerly_] Ah! Thats better. [_He
tries to drink again. Finding that he has emptied it, he hands it back
to his father-in-law upside down_].

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN [_taking it_] Great heavens! He has swallowed
half-a-pint of neat brandy. [_Much perturbed, he screws the cap on
again, and pockets the flask_].

THE ENVOY [_staggering to his feet; pulling a paper from his pocket; and
speaking with boisterous confidence_] Get up, Molly. Up with you, Eth.

_The two women rise to their knees._

THE ENVOY. What I want to ask is this. [_He refers to the paper_]. Ahem!
Civilization has reached a crisis. We are at the parting of the ways. We
stand on the brink of the Rubicon. Shall we take the plunge? Already a
leaf has been torn out of the book of the Sybil. Shall we wait until the
whole volume is consumed? On our right is the crater of the volcano: on
our left the precipice. One false step, and we go down to annihilation
dragging the whole human race with us. [_He pauses for breath_].

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN [_recovering his spirits under the familiar
stimulus of political oratory_] Hear, hear!

ZOO. What are you raving about? Ask your question while you have the
chance. What is it you want to know?

THE ENVOY [_patronizing her in the manner of a Premier debating with a
very young member of the Opposition_] A young woman asks me a question.
I am always glad to see the young taking an interest in politics. It is
an impatient question; but it is a practical question, an intelligent
question. She asks why we seek to lift a corner of the veil that shrouds
the future from our feeble vision.

ZOO. I don't. I ask you to tell the oracle what you want, and not keep
her sitting there all day.

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN [_warmly_] Order, order!

ZOO. What does 'Order, order!' mean?

THE ENVOY. I ask the august oracle to listen to my voice -

ZOO. You people seem never to tire of listening to your voices; but it
doesn't amuse us. What do you want?

THE ENVOY. I want, young woman, to be allowed to proceed without
unseemly interruptions.

_A low roll of thunder comes from the abyss._

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. There! Even the oracle is indignant. [_To the
Envoy_] Do not allow yourself to be put down by this lady's rude clamor,
Ambrose. Take no notice. Proceed.

THE ENVOY'S WIFE. I cant bear this much longer, Amby. Remember: I havn't
had any brandy.

HIS DAUGHTER [_trembling_] There are serpents curling in the vapor. I am
afraid of the lightning. Finish it, Papa; or I shall die.

THE ENVOY [_sternly_] Silence. The destiny of British civilization is at
stake. Trust me. I am not afraid. As I was saying - where was I?

ZOO. I don't know. Does anybody?

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN [_tactfully_] You were just coming to the
election, I think.

THE ENVOY [_reassured_] Just so. The election. Now what we want to
know is this: ought we to dissolve in August, or put it off until next
spring?

ZOO. Dissolve? In what? [_Thunder_]. Oh! My fault this time. That means
that the oracle understands you, and desires me to hold my tongue.

THE ENVOY [_fervently_] I thank the oracle.

THE WIFE [_to Zoo_] Serve you right!

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. Before the oracle replies, I should like to be
allowed to state a few of the reasons why, in my opinion, the Government
should hold on until the spring. In the first -

_Terrific lightning and thunder. The Elderly Gentleman is knocked flat;
but as he immediately sits up again dazedly it is clear that he is none
the worse for the shock. The ladies cower in terror. The Envoy's hat is
blown off; but he seizes it just as it quits his temples, and holds it
on with both hands. He is recklessly drunk, but quite articulate, as he
seldom speaks in public without taking stimulants beforehand._

THE ENVOY [_taking one hand from his hat to make a gesture of stilling
the tempest_] Thats enough. We know how to take a hint. I'll put the
case in three words. I am the leader of the Potterbill party. My party
is in power. I am Prime Minister. The Opposition - the Rotterjacks - have
won every bye-election for the last six months. They -

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN [_scrambling heatedly to his feet_] Not by fair
means. By bribery, by misrepresentation, by pandering to the vilest
prejudices [_muttered thunder_] - I beg your pardon [_he is silent_].

THE ENVOY. Never mind the bribery and lies. The oracle knows all about
that. The point is that though our five years will not expire until the
year after next, our majority will be eaten away at the bye-elections
by about Easter. We can't wait: we must start some question that will
excite the public, and go to the country on it. But some of us say do it
now. Others say wait til the spring. We cant make up our minds one way
or the other. Which would you advise?

ZOO. But what is the question that is to excite your public?

THE ENVOY. That doesnt matter. I dont know yet. We will find a question
all right enough. The oracle can foresee the future: we cannot.
[_Thunder_]. What does that mean? What have I done now?

ZOO. [_severely_] How often must you be told that we cannot foresee the
future? There is no such thing as the future until it is the present.

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. Allow me to point out, madam, that when the
Potterbill party sent to consult the oracle fifteen years ago, the
oracle prophesied that the Potterbills would be victorious at the
General Election; and they were. So it is evident that the oracle can
foresee the future, and is sometimes willing to reveal it.

THE ENVOY. Quite true. Thank you, Poppa. I appeal now, over your head,
young woman, direct to the August Oracle, to repeat the signal favor
conferred on my illustrious predecessor, Sir Fuller Eastwind, and to
answer me exactly as he was answered.

_The oracle raises her hands to command silence._

ALL. Sh-sh-sh!

_Invisible trombones utter three solemn blasts in the manner of Die
Zauberfl√ґte._

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. May I -

ZOO [_quickly_] Hush. The oracle is going to speak.

THE ORACLE. Go home, poor fool.

_She vanishes; and the atmosphere changes to prosaic daylight. Zoo comes
off the railing; throws off her robe; makes a bundle of it; and tucks it
under her arm. The magic and mystery are gone. The women rise to their
feet. The Envoy's party stare at one another helplessly._

ZOO. The same reply, word for word, that your illustrious predecessor,
as you call him, got fifteen years ago. You asked for it; and you got
it. And just think of all the important questions you might have asked.
She would have answered them, you know. It is always like that. I
will go and arrange to have you sent home: you can wait for me in the
entrance hall [_she goes out_].

THE ENVOY. What possessed me to ask for the same answer old Eastwind
got?

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. But it was not the same answer. The answer to
Eastwind was an inspiration to our party for years. It won us the
election.

THE ENVOY'S DAUGHTER. I learnt it at school, granpa. It wasn't the same
at all. I can repeat it. [_She quotes_] 'When Britain was cradled in the
west, the east wind hardened her and made her great. Whilst the east
wind prevails Britain shall prosper. The east wind shall wither
Britain's enemies in the day of contest. Let the Rotterjacks look to
it.'

THE ENVOY. The old man invented that. I see it all. He was a doddering
old ass when he came to consult the oracle. The oracle naturally said
'Go home, poor fool.' There was no sense in saying that to me; but as
that girl said, I asked for it. What else could the poor old chap do but
fake up an answer fit for publication? There were whispers about it; but
nobody believed them. I believe them now.

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. Oh, I cannot admit that Sir Fuller Eastwind was
capable of such a fraud.

THE ENVOY. He was capable of anything: I knew his private secretary.
And now what are we going to say? You don't suppose I am going back to
Baghdad to tell the British Empire that the oracle called me a fool, do
you?

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. Surely we must tell the truth, however painful it
may be to our feelings.

THE ENVOY. I am not thinking of my feelings: I am not so selfish as
that, thank God. I am thinking of the country: of our party. The truth,
as you call it, would put the Rotterjacks in for the next twenty years.
It would be the end of me politically. Not that I care for that: I am
only too willing to retire if you can find a better man. Dont hesitate
on my account.

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. No, Ambrose: you are indispensable. There is no
one else.

THE ENVOY. Very well, then. What are you going to do?

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. My dear Ambrose, you are the leader of the party,
not I. What are you going to do?

THE ENVOY. I am going to tell the exact truth; thats what I'm going to
do. Do you take me for a liar?

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN [_puzzled_] Oh. I beg your pardon. I understood
you to say -

THE ENVOY [_cutting him short_] You understood me to say that I am going
back to Baghdad to tell the British electorate that the oracle repeated
to me, word for word, what it said to Sir Fuller Eastwind fifteen years
ago. Molly and Ethel can bear me out. So must you, if you are an honest
man. Come on.

_He goes out, followed by his wife and daughter._

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN [_left alone and shrinking into an old and
desolate figure_] What am I to do? I am a most perplexed and wretched
man. [_He falls on his knees, and stretches his hands in entreaty over
the abyss_]. I invoke the oracle. I cannot go back and connive at a
blasphemous lie. I implore guidance.

_The Pythoness walks in on the gallery behind him, and touches him on
the shoulder. Her size is now natural. Her face is hidden by her hood.
He flinches as if from an electric shock; turns to her; and cowers,
covering his eyes in terror._

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. No: not close to me. I'm afraid I can't bear it.

THE ORACLE [_with grave pity_] Come: look at me. I am my natural size
now: what you saw there was only a foolish picture of me thrown on a
cloud by a lantern. How can I help you?

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. They have gone back to lie about your answer. I
cannot go with them. I cannot live among people to whom nothing is real.
I have become incapable of it through my stay here. I implore to be
allowed to stay.

THE ORACLE. My friend: if you stay with us you will die of
discouragement.

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. If I go back I shall die of disgust and despair.
I take the nobler risk. I beg you, do not cast me out.

_He catches her robe and holds her._

THE ORACLE. Take care. I have been here one hundred and seventy years.
Your death does not mean to me what it means to you.

THE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN. It is the meaning of life, not of death, that
makes banishment so terrible to me.

THE ORACLE. Be it so, then. You may stay.

_She offers him her hands. He grasps them and raises himself a little by
clinging to her. She looks steadily into his face. He stiffens; a little
convulsion shakes him; his grasp relaxes; and he falls dead._

THE ORACLE [_looking down at the body_] Poor shortlived thing! What else
could I do for you?




PART V.

As Far as Thought can Reach


_Summer afternoon in the year 31,920 A.D. A sunlit glade at the southern
foot of a thickly wooded hill. On the west side of it, the steps and
columned porch of a dainty little classic temple. Between it and the
hill, a rising path to the wooded heights begins with rough steps of
stones in the moss. On the opposite side, a grove. In the middle of the
glade, an altar in the form of a low marble table as long as a man, set
parallel to the temple steps and pointing to the hill. Curved marble
benches radiate from it into the foreground; but they are not joined to
it: there is plenty of space to pass between the altar and the benches.

A dance of youths and maidens is in progress. The music is provided by a
few fluteplayers seated carelessly on the steps of the temple. There are
no children; and none of the dancers seems younger than eighteen. Some
of the youths have beards. Their dress, like the architecture of the
theatre and the design of the altar and curved seats, resembles Grecian
of the fourth century B.C., freely handled. They move with perfect
balance and remarkable grace, racing through a figure like a farandole.
They neither romp nor hug in our manner.

At the first full close they clap their hands to stop the musicians, who
recommence with a saraband, during which a strange figure appears on the
path beyond the temple. He is deep in thought, with his eyes closed
and his feet feeling automatically for the rough irregular steps as he
slowly descends them. Except for a sort of linen kilt consisting mainly
of a girdle carrying a sporran and a few minor pockets, he is naked. In
physical hardihood and uprightness he seems to be in the prime of life;
and his eyes and mouth shew no signs of age; but his face, though fully
and firmly fleshed, bears a network of lines, varying from furrows to
hairbreadth reticulations, as if Time had worked over every inch of it
incessantly through whole geologic periods. His head is finely domed
and utterly bald. Except for his eyelashes he is quite hairless. He is
unconscious of his surroundings, and walks right into one of the dancing
couples, separating them. He wakes up and stares about him. The couple
stop indignantly. The rest stop. The music stops. The youth whom he has
jostled accosts him without malice, but without anything that we should
call manners._

THE YOUTH. Now, then, ancient sleepwalker, why don't you keep your eyes
open and mind where you are going?

THE ANCIENT [_mild, bland, and indulgent_] I did not know there was a
nursery here, or I should not have turned my face in this direction.
Such accidents cannot always be avoided. Go on with your play: I will
turn back.

THE YOUTH. Why not stay with us and enjoy life for once in a way? We
will teach you to dance.

THE ANCIENT. No, thank you. I danced when I was a child like you.
Dancing is a very crude attempt to get into the rhythm of life. It would
be painful to me to go back from that rhythm to your babyish gambols: in
fact I could not do it if I tried. But at your age it is pleasant: and I
am sorry I disturbed you.

THE YOUTH. Come! own up: arnt you very unhappy? It's dreadful to see
you ancients going about by yourselves, never noticing anything, never
dancing, never laughing, never singing, never getting anything out of
life. None of us are going to be like that when we grow up. It's a dog's
life.

THE ANCIENT. Not at all. You repeat that old phrase without knowing
that there was once a creature on earth called a dog. Those who are
interested in extinct forms of life will tell you that it loved the
sound of its own voice and bounded about when it was happy, just as you
are doing here. It is you, my children, who are living the dog's life.

THE YOUTH. The dog must have been a good sensible creature: it set you
a very wise example. You should let yourself go occasionally and have a
good time.

THE ANCIENT. My children: be content to let us ancients go our ways and
enjoy ourselves in our own fashion.

_He turns to go._

THE MAIDEN. But wait a moment. Why will you not tell us how you enjoy
yourself? You must have secret pleasures that you hide from us, and that
you never get tired of. I get tired of all our dances and all our tunes.
I get tired of all my partners.

THE YOUTH [_suspiciously_] Do you? I shall bear that in mind.

_They all look at one another as if there were some sinister
significance in what she has said._

THE MAIDEN. We all do: what is the use of pretending we don't? It is
natural.

SEVERAL YOUNG PEOPLE. No, no. We don't. It is not natural.

THE ANCIENT. You are older than he is, I see. You are growing up.

THE MAIDEN. How do you know? I do not look so much older, do I?

THE ANCIENT. Oh, I was not looking at you. Your looks do not interest
me.

THE MAIDEN. Thank you.

_They all laugh._

THE YOUTH. You old fish! I believe you don't know the difference between
a man and a woman.

THE ANCIENT. It has long ceased to interest me in the way it interests
you. And when anything no longer interests us we no longer know it.

THE MAIDEN. You havnt told me how I shew my age. That is what I want to
know. As a matter of fact I am older than this boy here: older than he
thinks. How did you find that out?

THE ANCIENT. Easily enough. You are ceasing to pretend that these
childish games - this dancing and singing and mating - do not become
tiresome and unsatisfying after a while. And you no longer care to
pretend that you are younger than you are. These are the signs of
adolescence. And then, see these fantastic rags with which you have
draped yourself. [_He takes up a piece of her draperies in his hand_].
It is rather badly worn here. Why do you not get a new one?

THE MAIDEN. Oh, I did not notice it. Besides, it is too much trouble.
Clothes are a nuisance. I think I shall do without them some day, as you
ancients do.

THE ANCIENT. Signs of maturity. Soon you will give up all these toys and
games and sweets.

THE YOUTH. What! And be as miserable as you?

THE ANCIENT. Infant: one moment of the ecstasy of life as we live it
would strike you dead. [_He stalks gravely out through the grove_].

_They stare after him, much damped._

THE YOUTH [_to the musicians_] Let us have another dance.

_The musicians shake their heads; get up from their seats on the steps;
and troop away into the temple. The others follow them, except the
Maiden, who sits down on the altar._

A MAIDEN [_as she goes_] There! The ancient has put them out of
countenance. It is your fault, Strephon, for provoking him. [_She
leaves, much disappointed_].

A YOUTH. Why need you have cheeked him like that? [_He goes grumbling_].

STREPHON [_calling after him_] I thought it was understood that we are
always to cheek the ancients on principle.

ANOTHER YOUTH. Quite right too! There would be no holding them if we
didn't. [_He goes_].

THE MAIDEN. Why don't you really stand up to them? _I_ did.

ANOTHER YOUTH. Sheer, abject, pusillanimous, dastardly cowardice. Thats
why. Face the filthy truth. [_He goes_].

ANOTHER YOUTH [_turning on the steps as he goes out_] And don't you
forget, infant, that one moment of the ecstasy of life as I live it
would strike you dead. Haha!

STREPHON [_now the only one left, except the Maiden_] Arnt you coming,
Chloe?

THE MAIDEN [_shakes her head_]!

THE YOUTH [_hurrying back to her_] What is the matter?

THE MAIDEN [_tragically pensive_] I dont know.

THE YOUTH. Then there is something the matter. Is that what you mean?

THE MAIDEN. Yes. Something is happening to me. I dont know what.

THE YOUTH. You no longer love me. I have seen it for a month past.

THE MAIDEN. Dont you think all that is rather silly? We cannot go on as
if this kind of thing, this dancing and sweethearting, were everything.

THE YOUTH. What is there better? What else is there worth living for?

THE MAIDEN. Oh, stuff! Dont be frivolous.

THE YOUTH. Something horrible is happening to you. You are losing all
heart, all feeling. [_He sits on the altar beside her and buries his
face in his hands_]. I am bitterly unhappy.

THE MAIDEN. Unhappy! Really, you must have a very empty head if there is
nothing in it but a dance with one girl who is no better than any of the
other girls.

THE YOUTH. You did not always think so. You used to be vexed if I as
much as looked at another girl.

THE MAIDEN. What does it matter what I did when I was a baby? Nothing
existed for me then except what I tasted and touched and saw; and I
wanted all that for myself, just as I wanted the moon to play with. Now
the world is opening out for me. More than the world: the universe. Even
little things are turning out to be great things, and becoming intensely
interesting. Have you ever thought about the properties of numbers?

THE YOUTH [_sitting up, markedly disenchanted_] Numbers!!! I cannot
imagine anything drier or more repulsive.

THE MAIDEN. They are fascinating, just fascinating. I want to get away
from our eternal dancing and music, and just sit down by myself and
think about numbers.

THE YOUTH [_rising indignantly_] Oh, this is too much. I have suspected
you for some time past. We have all suspected you. All the girls
say that you have deceived us as to your age: that you are getting
flat-chested: that you are bored with us; that you talk to the ancients
when you get the chance. Tell me the truth: how old are you?

THE MAIDEN. Just twice your age, my poor boy.

THE YOUTH. Twice my age! Do you mean to say you are four?

THE MAIDEN. Very nearly four.

THE YOUTH [_collapsing on the altar with a groan_] Oh!

THE MAIDEN. My poor Strephon: I pretended I was only two for your sake.
I was two when you were born. I saw you break from your shell; and
you were such a charming child! You ran round and talked to us all so
prettily, and were so handsome and well grown, that I lost my heart to
you at once. But now I seem to have lost it altogether: bigger things
are taking possession of me. Still, we were very happy in our childish
way for the first year, werent we?

STREPHON. I was happy until you began cooling towards me.

THE MAIDEN. Not towards you, but towards all the trivialities of our
life here. Just think. I have hundreds of years to live: perhaps
thousands. Do you suppose I can spend centuries dancing; listening to
flutes ringing changes on a few tunes and a few notes; raving about the
beauty of a few pillars and arches; making jingles with words; lying
about with your arms round me, which is really neither comfortable nor
convenient; everlastingly choosing colors for dresses, and putting them
on, and washing; making a business of sitting together at fixed hours
to absorb our nourishment; taking little poisons with it to make us
delirious enough to imagine we are enjoying ourselves; and then having
to pass the nights in shelters lying in cots and losing half our lives
in a state of unconsciousness. Sleep is a shameful thing: I have not
slept at all for weeks past. I have stolen out at night when you were
all lying insensible - quite disgusting, I call it - and wandered about
the woods, thinking, thinking, thinking; grasping the world; taking it
to pieces; building it up again; devising methods; planning experiments
to test the methods; and having a glorious time. Every morning I have
come back here with greater and greater reluctance; and I know that the
time will soon come - perhaps it has come already - when I shall not come
back at all.

STREPHON. How horribly cold and uncomfortable!

THE MAIDEN. Oh, don't talk to me of comfort! Life is not worth living if
you have to bother about comfort. Comfort makes winter a torture,
spring an illness, summer an oppression, and autumn only a respite. The
ancients could make life one long frowsty comfort if they chose. But


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 22 24 25 26

Online LibraryGeorge Bernard ShawBack to Methuselah → online text (page 22 of 26)