The action of the play takes place in North China, during the "Boxer" risings of 1900.7
The SCENE is an upper room of the Scottish Mission in the European Quarter of Ichau, which has been cut off and besieged by the Chinese "Boxer" rebels. It is the fifth day of the siege. A whitewashed room with sandbagged and screened window up stage c. A small wooden table E.c. and chairs R. and L. A trestle-table against the wall L. above door, with revolver, haversacks and field-glass case heaped on it, and under the table a wicker- hamper containing wine and a pot of caviare. A small medicine chest is on the table. Ammunition and other boxes are piled here and there. The room is untidy and Uttered with rubbish. Doors up R. and down L.
(When the CURTAIN rises AINSLIE is "sniping" from the window, with RALSTON on his right "spotting" through field-glasses. Both men are dirty and unshaven and are haggard with the strain of the siege. AINSLIE is a cheerful youth; RALSTON is a disillusioned pessimist of 45; his wrist is bandaged.)
(Distant rifle fire.)
RALSTON (tense). Look out—
Got him. That's number 13 (adding another mark on wall).
AINSLIE (reloading). That'll teach those yellow devils to keep their heads down.
RALSTON. Yes, for the moment, but the brutes push their sungars nearer every day. (Moving L. to trestle-table and speaking in a strained, hoarse voice.) We can just hold them as long as our ammunition lasts, but once that's gone, and at this rate there won't be a dozen rounds left by to-morrow, we shall be swamped. I was writing farewell letters half the night, just in case I didn't get another chance. The end may come at any moment.
AINSLIE. Don't you worry. The relief might be here to-night. The Colonel is quite confident— I heard him telling Mrs. Patterson this morning that the relief column must have started three days ago.
(Gunfire very faint in the distance.)
RALSTON. I don't know how the women stand the suspense; they've been magnificent, and old Patterson too: nothing seems to worry him, but I suppose he would regard martyrdom only as a glorious crown to his work here. Amazing point of view !
AINSLIE (sardonically). The only thing that really worries old Patterson is the fear that the R.C. Padre may pinch some of his converts when they're in the trenches.
RALSTON. You're getting as cynical as I am. It's all this cursed siege.
(Gunfire in distance.)
Hullo! What's that? Don't you hear guns?
(Moving to window.)
AINSLIE. I've been thinking I heard gunfire on and off all the morning and the Boxers seem to have noticed something too. They were moving men back over the hill an hour ago.
(Gunfire again: louder.)
RALSTON. There it is again.
(Enter JESSIE PATTERSON, E. She is 18 and pretty.)
JESSIE (excitedly). Oh! Can that be gunfire? Are they really coming? Do you think we're saved, Mr. Ainslie?
AINSLIE (coming to her). That's all right, Miss Patterson. I think the worst's over. You've been simply splendid all through.
(AINSLIE and JESSIE must show
that they are attracted to each other.)
(RALSTON takes AINSLIE'S post at window.)
RALSTON (at window). See here, AINSLIE. There's something doing in the Boxer lines: look at them streaming back over that hill like ants. There'll be no attack to-day.
AINSLIE. By Gad, man, I believe we're saved. Here's for a last shot. (He raises his rifle.)
RALSTON (stopping him). No! I shouldn't trouble to speed the parting guest. They might change their minds and have another go at us. It's the relief force over the hill they're up against.
(Enter PROFESSOR MERCER R.
He is a man crushed with the weight of tragedy.)
I must warn the Colonel.
PROFESSOR (R.). He knows already. He has been watching them from the roof.
JESSIE. Oh! Isn't it wonderful, Professor Mercer? After all these dreadful days of waiting, it's almost too good to be true!
PROFESSOR. Too good to be true, yes. You look happy, Miss Jessie, and you deserve to be happy. The world lies at your feet and you find it good to be young. Once there was some one very dear to me, young and fair like you. Sometimes I think I see her in your eyes.
JESSIE. Who was she, Professor? A romance of yours?
I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you.
PROFESSOR. She died many years ago. God keep you, my child, from such a fate as hers. (Moves C.)
(Enter PATTERSON and MRS. PATTERSON and
Miss SINCLAIR L.
PATTERSON is fussy and parsonical: his wife stout and comely.)
PATTERSON (excitedly). Do you not hear the gunfire? That strong iron voice calling to us and bidding us be of good cheer for help is coming!
(Cries of "Is it true?" "I can't believe it!" "Thank God!" "Is the relief really coming?")
(Enter COLONEL RAMEAU L., a tall, alert, debonair Frenchman.)
MRS. PATTERSON. Colonel, do tell us what you think!
RAMEAU (quietly and confidently, with a slight French accent). My friends, I think that all is well. The enemy are moving away from us to attack the relief column over the hills. It is their gunfire that we hear. If all goes well we should be relieved to-night.
JESSIE. How glorious! We must celebrate the occa- sion. Why, of course, I know. Professor, we must have a feast and finish that hamper of yours.
PROFESSOR. There is not much left. Two bottles of wine and— (he holds up the pot of caviare)— a pot of caviare.
AINSLIE. Yes, the pot of caviare. Professor, we must have that famous pot.
COLONEL. Surely now is the time, when the end of our peril is in sight?
Miss SINCLAIR. Why, yes, of course.
(They all join in the chorus.)
PROFESSOR. Better wait. They have still far to come.
RALSTON. They will be here for supper at the latest.
(Sitting on table R. while Miss SINCLAIR re-bandages his wrist.)
They cannot be more than ten miles from us now. If they only did two miles an hour it would make them due at seven.
COLONEL. There is a battle on the way. You must grant two or three hours for the battle.
AINSLIE. Not half an hour. They will walk through them as if they weren't there. What can these blackguards do with their matchlocks and swords against modern weapons?
COLONEL. It depends on who leads the column of relief. If they are fortunate enough to have a French Officer
RALSTON. An Englishman for my money.
PATTERSON. I should prefer a Scotsman.
AINSLIE. I don't see that it matters a toss. Messrs. Metford and Maxim are the two men who will see us through, and with them on our side no leader can go wrong. The enemy will simply melt away. So now, Professor, come on with that pot of caviare.
PROFESSOR. We shall reserve it for supper.
PATTERSON. After all, it will be a courtesy to our guests— the officers of the relief— if we have such a delicacy to set before them. I'm in agreement with the Professor that we reserve the caviare for supper.
AINSLIE. All right! I'm off to the church tower. I want to be the first to see the relief force come over the hill.
(AINSLIE goes out after the COLONEL has spoken to him.)
(PROFESSOR moves to go out, but is stopped by PATTERSON.)
PATTERSON. By the way, Professor, I was only hearing to-day that this is the second time you've been besieged like this. I'm sure we should be very interested to hear some details of your previous experience.
PROFESSOR (reluctantly). I was in Sung Tong, in South China, in '89.
PATTERSON. What a strange coincidence that you should twice have been in so perilous a situation. Tell us how you were relieved at Sung Tong.
PROFESSOR (after a pause). We were not relieved.
PATTERSON. What! The place fell?
PROFESSOR. Yes, it fell.
PATTERSON. And you came through alive?
PROFESSOR. I am a doctor as well as a naturalist. They had many wounded and so they spared me. (Trying to stop PATTERSON.)
PATTERSON. And the rest?
COLONEL (hurriedly). Assez! Assez! I have been in China twenty years — I can guess.
PATTERSON. I am sorry. I can see that it is a painful subject. I should not have asked.
PROFESSOR (pulling himself together). No. It is better not to speak about such things at all.
(Gunfire louder and distant rifle fire.)
Surely those guns are very much nearer?
(They all crowd to the window.)
PATTERSON (to his wife). Come, my dear, let us go and thank God for our deliverance.
(They all go out except the COLONEL and the PROFESSOR.)
(PROFESSOR moves wearily R. and sits L. of table.)
COLONEL (lighting a cigarette). Ma foi! My country will be proud of me. Who knows but that I may be given the Légion d'Honneur for this affair. "Defence of Ichau against the Boxers by Colonel Henri Rameau, late of the Chasseurs d'Afrique. Splendid resistance of small garrison against overwhelming odds." It will certainly be in the Paris papers.
PROFESSOR (coldly). You think we are saved?
COLONEL (right of table R.). Why, Professor, I have seen you more excited on the day when you discovered that new beetle of yours.
PROFESSOR. The beetle was safe in my collecting- box first. I have seen so many strange turns of fate in my life that I do not grieve, nor do I rejoice until I know that I have cause. But you do not agree with me?
COLONEL. Well, I'll stake my military reputation that all is well. They must be advancing swiftly: the firing has died down to show that resistance is at an end, and within an hour we'll see them over the brow. Ainslie is to fire his rifle three times from the church tower as a signal, and then we shall make a little sally on our own account. (Slaps his holster.)
PROFESSOR. And you are waiting for this signal?
COLONEL. Yes, we are waiting for AINSLIE's shots. (Looks round.) I thought I would stay behind, for I had something to ask you.
PROFESSOR. What was it?
COLONEL. Well, you remember your talk about the other siege— the siege of Sung Tong. It interests me very much from a professional point of view. Now that the ladies and civilians are gone you will have no objection to discussing it.
PROFESSOR. It is not a pleasant subject. (Turning away with a shudder.)
COLONEL. I know that. Mon Dieu! It was indeed a tragedy. But you have seen how I have conducted the defence here. Was it wise? Was it good? Was it worthy of the traditions of the French Army?
PROFESSOR. I think you could have done no more.
COLONEL. I thank you. But this other place, was it as ably defended? To me, a comparison of this sort is intensely interesting. Could it have been saved?
PROFESSOR, No. Everything possible was done— excepting one thing
COLONEL. Ah! there was an omission! What was it?
PROFESSOR (with growing horror). No one— above all no woman — should have been allowed to fall alive into the hands of the Chinese.
COLONEL. You are right: a thousand times right. But do not think that this has escaped my thoughts. For myself, I would die fighting, so would Ralston— so would AINSLIE— I have talked to them and it is settled. But the others, I have spoken with them, but what can you do? There are the priest, and the missionary, and the women—
PROFESSOR. Would they wish to be taken alive?
COLONEL. They would not promise to take steps to prevent it. (Sarcastically.) Their consciences would not permit them to take their own lives. Of course it is all over now and we need not speak of such dreadful things. But what would you do in my place?
PROFESSOR (steadily). Kill them!
COLONEL (looking fixedly at the PROFESSOR). Mon Dieu! You would murder them?
PROFESSOR (in agony). In mercy I would kill them. Man, I have been through it. I have seen the death by the hot eggs: I have seen the death by the boiling kettle: I have seen the women My God! I wonder that I have ever slept sound again. My own daughter— was one of the victims. (A pause.) I was strapped to a stake with thorns in my eyelids to keep them open, but my grief at their agony was a less thing than my self-reproach when I realized that I could have snatched them at the last instant from the hands of their tormentors. (He rises to his feet.) Murder? I am ready to stand at the Divine Bar of Judgment and answer for a thousand murders such as that. Sin! Why, it is such an act as might well cleanse the stain of real sin from the soul. But if, knowing what I know, I should have failed this second time to do it, then by God there is no hell deep enough or hot enough for my guilty craven spirit. (He sinks down again and buries his face in his hands.)
COLONEL (rising and putting his hand on the PROFESSOR'S shoulder). I am with you. You are a brave strong man, and know your own mind. Ma foi! You would have been my great help had things gone the other way. I have often wondered in the dark, early hours of the morning, but I did not know how (Trying to be cheerful.) But we should have heard AINSLIE's signal by now. I will go and see.
(He hurries out L., and the PROFESSOR is left sitting at the table with his head buried in his hands. After a while he rises, goes to the table by the wall, and loads a revolver, then puts it down helplessly, from the medicine chest picks up a blue phial full of white powder and examines it carefully: finally he searches in the hamper and brings out the pot of caviare. Puts both back with a shudder and goes to the window and looks out.)
(A noise of hurried steps and enter COLONEL RAMEAU. He is ghastly white and pants with exhaustion. He leans against the door.)
PROFESSOR (coming to C.). Well! They are not coming?
COLONEL. No, they cannot come.
PROFESSOR (after a pause). Do they all know?
COLONEL. No one knows but me.
PROFESSOR. How did you learn?
COLONEL (with hoarse gasps). When I left you I went out to AINSLIE's post; as I passed the postern gate down below I heard knocking. I opened it: it was a Christian Tartar badly cut about with swords— he had been sent from the battle by the Commander of the Relief. They have been checked, and have exhausted most of their ammunition. Three days must pass before reinforce- ments can come, and they can advance. That was all. Mon Dieu! it was enough. (Moves totteringly to table and sits L. of it.)
PROFESSOR. Where is the messenger?
COLONEL. He died from loss of blood. His body lies at the postern gate.
PROFESSOR. And no one else saw him?
COLONEL. Not to speak to.
PROFESSOR. Oh! they did see him, then?
COLONEL. AINSLIE must have seen him from the church tower. He must know that I have had tidings of the battle. If I tell him they must all know.
PROFESSOR. How long can we hold out?
COLONEL. An hour or two at the most. We cannot repel another attack. As a soldier I know it.
PROFESSOR (dully). Then it is absolutely certain we must fall? There is no hope for us?
(There is a murmur of voices and footsteps outside and enter AINSLIE L., RALSTON, PATTERSON and the rest, eager for news. As they enter the PROFESSOR moves to prevent the COLONEL being seen.)
AINSLIE. You've had news, Colonel?
(The COLONEL tries to speak, but fails.)
PROFESSOR (advancing and taking command of the situation. He screens the COLONEL with his body from the others). Colonel Rameau has just been telling me It is all right. The relief force have halted, but they will be here in the early morning. There is no longer any danger.
(Cheers, exclamations and handshaking all round.)
RALSTON. But suppose they rush us before to-morrow morning? What infernal fools those fellows are not to push on.
AINSLIE. It's all safe. The Boxers have had a bad knock. I've seen their wounded being carried over the hill by dozens. They won't attack before morning after such losses— will they, Colonel?
(The COLONEL rises slowly to his feet during AINSLIE'S speech.)
COLONEL (pulling himself together). No, no! It is certain that nothing can happen for the present. None the less, get back to your posts. We must give no point away.
(The group disperses.)
PROFESSOR (after glancing at the COLONEL). Meanwhile I invite you all to a little supper-party to celebrate our deliverance. I think the time has come to open that pot of caviare. Let us meet here after sunset.
(Cries of "We will!" "Good for you, Professor!" "Don't forget the wine," "It will be delightful," etc.)
(They all troop out cheerfully L.)
(The COLONEL and the PROFESSOR solemnly shake hands.)
COLONEL. I leave it in your hands.
(The CURTAIN falls to mark the lapse of several hours.)
(When the CURTAIN rises again, the trestle-table has been moved from the wall and is now set in the centre of the stage. The PROFESSOR and the COLONEL have taken the two ends L. and R. respectively, with JESSIE PATTERSON on the PROFESSOR'S right. It is night outside. Much noise and chatter as the CURTAIN goes up. Everybody is cheerful and jolly except the COLONEL and the PROFESSOR.)
(Miss SINCLAIR and AINSLIE move up to side table L. and fetch more wine, etc.)
PROFESSOR (nervously— to JESSIE). You don't like my little delicacy, Miss Jessie? It is a disappointment to me when I had kept it for you. I beg that you will eat the caviare. You have hardly touched it.
JESSIE. I can't bear its nasty salt taste. But never mind, perhaps I shall get to like it in time.
PROFESSOR (pressing her). Well, you must make a beginning. Why not start to educate your taste? Do, to please me!
JESSIE (with a laugh). Why, how earnest you are! I had no idea you were so polite, Professor Mercer. Even if I don't eat it I can be just as grateful.
PROFESSOR (hardening). You are foolish not to eat it. I tell you it is worse than foolish not to eat the caviare to-night.
JESSIE. But why?
PROFESSOR. Because you have it on your plate. Because it is a shame to leave it. MRS. PATTERSON. There! there! don't trouble her any more. I can see that she doesn't like it. But it shan't be wasted. (She signals for JESSIE'S plate to be passed.) Make your mind easy, Professor.
(The PROFESSOR is lost in thought and his face is haggard.)
RALSTON. What will you do yourself for a holiday, Mr. Patterson?
PATTERSON. Well, I'll take three months in Edinburgh to attend the Annual Meeting, and you'll be glad to do some shopping in Princes Street, Mary — and you, Jessie, shall see some folk your own age. Then we can come back in the autumn, when our nerves have had a rest.
Miss SINCLAIR (who has been filling the wine-glasses and is now standing behind AINSLIE). Indeed, we shall all need it. You know this long strain takes me in the strangest way. At the present moment I've got such a buzzing in my ears.
(A significant pause.)
AINSLIE. Well, that's funny, for its just the same with me. An absurd up-and-down buzzing as if a drunken bluebottle was experimenting with his register.
(RALSTON rises and goes to side table, relieving Miss SINCLAIR.)
As you say, it must be due to nervous strain. For my part, I am going back to Peking and I hope I may get some promotion over this affair. I can get good polo there and that's as fine a change as I know. How about you, Ralston?
RALSTON (coming back to table and yawning). Oh! I don't know. I've hardly had time to think. I want to have a real good sunny holiday and forget it all. It's funny to see all those farewell letters in my room. Things looked so bad on Wednesday night that I'd settled up all my affairs and written to my friends. Heaven knows how they would have been delivered, but I trusted to luck. I think I'll keep those papers as a souvenir. They will always remind me of how close a shave I have had.
COLONEL (grimly). Yes, I would keep them.
AINSLIE. What is it, Colonel? You sound in the blues to-night.
COLONEL. No, I am quite content.
RALSTON. Well! So you should be when you see success in sight. I am sure we are all indebted to you for your science and skill. We couldn't possibly have held the place without you. Ladies and gentlemen (he rises to his feet), I ask you to drink the health of Colonel Rameau of the French Army.
(They all rise and pledge the COLONEL with cries "a vous," "a votre santé, mon Colonel," etc.)
COLONEL (struggles to rise, then stands gripping the table. He speaks in a dull even voice). I have always tried to do my duty. I do not think that more could have been done. If things had gone wrong with us and the place had fallen, you would, I am sure, have freed me from any blame or responsibility.
PATTERSON (burning to hear his own voice}. I'm voicing the sentiments of the company, Colonel Rameau, when I say—
(RALSTON drops his chin on his chest and is still.)<(p>
But Lord save us! What's amiss with Mr. Ralston?
(He bends over him.)
PROFESSOR (hurriedly). Don't mind him. We are suffering from reaction now. I have no doubt that we are all liable to collapse. It is only to-night that we shall understand what we have escaped.
MRS. PATTERSON. I'm sure I can fully sympathize with him. I don't know when I have felt more sleepy. I can hardly hold my head up. If you'll excuse me, Professor Mercer, I think I'll go to my room.
(Her husband helps her to the door R.)
(Miss SINCLAIR follows her out.)
PATTERSON (wiping his forehead with his handkerchief). Well! I've never known Mary do that before— falling asleep over her supper. But the air does seem unusually hot and heavy. I think that I shall turn in early myself.
AINSLIE (rises, glass in hand, excitedly). I think that we ought to have one drink all round and then sing "Auld Lang Syne." For a week we have all pulled in the same boat and we've got to know each other as people never do in the quiet days of peace. We've learned to appreciate each other and we've learned to appreciate each other's nationality. There's the Colonel here stands for France— then there's the Professor for America, and Ralston and I are Britishers. (He puts his hand to his head.) Then there's the ladies, God bless them! They've been angels of mercy and compassion all through the siege. I think we should drink the health of the ladies.
(The COLONEL'S head falls back against his chair.)
(AINSLIE passes his hand across his eyes. He begins to sway slightly.)
Wonderful thing— the quiet courage, the patience, the— what shall I say?— the fortitude, the— by George, look at the Colonel! He's gone to sleep too— most infernal sleepy weather (He sways and falls forward across the table, dropping his glass, which smashes.)
PATTERSON (springing to his feet and staring wildly). This isn't natural! Jessie! Why are they all asleep? (Gazing at RALSTON.) Is it sleep? Is it death? Open the windows! Help! Help! Help! (His voice chokes and he tears at his collar. He staggers to the window, but falls half-way.)
JESSIE (who has risen with her father and gazes horror-struck round the table). Professor Mercer! What is it? What is it? (She looks closely at the nearest figure, rushes to her father, then turns to the PROFESSOR.) Oh, my God! They are dying! They are dead!
PROFESSOR (follows her feebly, stumbling in his speech). My dear child — we would have spared you this— it would have been painless — it was hyocin— I put it in the caviare and you would not take it.
JESSIE (screams). Ah! You monster! You devil! You have poisoned them!
PROFESSOR. No! No! I have saved them. You don't know the Chinese. They are fiends! In another hour we should all have been taken. And then— And then—
(Firing breaks out close at hand.)
(He points to the pot of caviare frantically.) Take it now, child. For God's sake. (He staggers to the door and leans against it, feebly trying to bar the entry.)
(Footsteps and sounds of splintering wood.)
They're coming. Quick! Quick! We may cheat them yet.
(More firing and noises off. He turns to find she has fainted over the table. The noises grow louder. Trampling of footsteps. He staggers to the table and seizes a knife, then drags himself to stab her. As he raises his knife — loud whistles and cries of "Cease fire." "Where are you?" — a short pause— then the door is thrown open and an English Officer appears. He stops aghast as he surveys the scene. The knife drops from the PROFESSOR'S hand and with his last breath he croaks out:)
Too late Don't touch the caviare. (Then falls in a heap.)
RALSTON and AINSLIE should be dressed in riding-breeches or trousers and shirts with bandoliers. They should carry rifles and look unshaved and dishevelled. They are smartened up and wear coats for the supper scene.
The COLONEL should be in French Colonial uniform of the period, khaki drill with képi or sun-hat, revolver in holster, but no sword.
The PROFESSOR and PATTERSON in old clothes of the semi-tropical variety.
The ladies should be dressed in summer costumes of the 1900 period, and MRS. PATTERSON or Miss SINCLAIR or both can be dressed as hospital nurses.
The English Officer and Orderlies who appear immediately before the fall of the curtain can either be in Indian cavalry uniforms or in English naval kit. They must not be mentioned in the Programme.
The parts of MRS. PATTERSON and Miss SINCLAIR can be blended and played by one performer if necessary.