Dialogue from In a Handbag, Darkly

MERRIMAN: Here is the – the h-word in question, sir. (Puts the handbag on the desk.)

ALGERNON: Merriman, my man Lane is out on the platform. There appears to have been some kind of administrative error. Perhaps the two of you can determine between yourselves precisely who is to be murdered by whom, and report back.

(MERRIMAN leaves as MISS PRISM enters.)

MERRIMAN: Yes, sir. Good evening, Miss Prism.

JACK: Miss Prism!

ALGERNON: Cecily’s governess?

MISS PRISM: Mr Worthing? Mr Moncrieff? This is unexpected.

JACK: No it isn’t. I expect you’re here to pick up a handbag?

MISS PRISM: A handbag? (JACK winces.) Why, yes. I have the ticket stub here. Item thirty-three. As a justice of the peace you are, I presume, the ranking official?

(MISS PRISM hands JACK a ticket stub.)

ALGERNON: (To JACK) Don’t let her have it, if you’re so worried.

JACK: (Grimly) She has the ticket-stub. My hands are tied. Here it is, Miss Prism.

ALGERNON: (Looking at the handbag) Perhaps it’s full of money.

JACK: That’s certainly a possibility. It could also be a bomb.

ALGERNON: Or a baby.

(MISS PRISM bursts into tears.)

JACK: (Inspecting the label on the handbag) Whatever it is, it’s been in that storeroom for twenty-eight years. It is unlikely to be a baby in a useful state.

MISS PRISM: Mr Worthing... I have not told you everything. On the day I mislaid you as an infant...

JACK: Miss Prism, if this is a shameful secret about the past, it can wait.

(The voice of the TWIN addresses them.)

TWIN: To lose one baby, Miss Prism, may be regarded as misfortune. To lose twins seems like carelessness.

(They look around for the source of the voice, then realise that it came from the handbag. The bag and desk are rigged so that the actor playing the WITHERED TWIN can poke his head out through it, and a couple of gnarly puppet hands. He does so now.)

TWIN: I expect you’re wondering why I brought you here.

JACK: (With fragile composition) No. No we’re not. We refuse to be drawn in, we’re all going to go home... aren’t we?

(There is a moment of awkward silence. MISS PRISM sobs.)

TWIN: Are you going to tell them, Miss Prism, or am I?

JACK: No! (Puts his hands over his ears.)

MISS PRISM: You were twins, Mr Worthing. But you were not identical twins. One of you was rosy-cheeked, golden-haired, and well disposed to life. The other was ugly, bitter and monstrous, with a terrible temper to it. The General and Mrs Moncrieff never even announced the birth of the latter. For almost a year they were able to conceal it, keeping it cruelly confined to the smallest bedroom, the one with no fireplace and only one en-suite bathroom. But it became more and more difficult to keep secret. Came a day when the Moncrieffs sent me forth from the house, with both infants and instructions to return with only one of them. I had about me a somewhat old, but capacious handbag, whose story we know. I was also in possession of a perambulator, the manuscript of a three-volume novel, and a second handbag, in which I intended to dispose of the disfavoured child. I checked it in to left luggage in this very cloakroom, believing that if I held on to the ticket-stub, I could occasionally return to check on the child's well-being, or retrieve it should its parents have a change of heart. But I was distraught by guilt, and in a series of mental abstractions I mislaid the ticket-stub and every other item in my care, including yourself, Mr Worthing. When the first handbag was restored to me earlier tonight it contained the stub...

TWIN: Which brings you here. Isn’t this pleasant? A little family reunion. Jack and Algernon, both my brothers, if I have followed the plot correctly, and even my old nanny. Now...

JACK: Now nothing. We are not in the least curious and we are going home. (Waits for support from the others, which does not come) Well, I'm going home.

TWIN: You are doing nothing of the kind, dear brother. No one is leaving this room until I and my henchmen allow it. Henchmen! You can come back in now.

(MERRIMAN and LANE enter. LANE blocks JACK’s exit. MERRIMAN crosses to the storeroom door.)

JACK: Merriman, my indefatigable butler!

ALGERNON: Lane, my hitherto trusted valet! After all your years of service, how cruelly you repay me.

TWIN: Shut up! No more juxtapositions from anyone. Henchmen, if anybody utters another contradiction-in-terms, humorous play on words, pithy epigram, zeugma, or witticism of any kind, kill them, understand?

MERRIMAN: Yes, sir.

LANE: Got it, sir.

ALGERNON: You two aren’t really working for this... this... (To the TWIN) You have us all at a disadvantage. What is your name?

TWIN: A question upon which much depends. In the beginning, I knew no name, no world, no feelings. I knew only darkness, and the little patch of grubby ceiling which foundlings call the sky. I survived on rainwater from the leaky roof and a packet of mint imperials which chanced to be in the handbag with me. I was discovered by a young man, a clerk on the Metropolitan District Railway, who sat my handbag on his work-desk, shared his food and taught me speech, although he made it clear from the outset that he would never remove me from the handbag. More than his job was worth, he said. I had been placed in left luggage in his charge and, as far as he was concerned, I would stay there until the ticket-stub was returned. I knew nothing of the world outside, except what I overheard from the travellers who passed through my cloakroom. I learnt to wonder – who I was, why I had been stowed away in such a place. I entertained fanciful notions of being a fairy changeling, or the rightful king of some exotic land, or at least the illegitimate son of someone interesting enough to blackmail one day. Until I overheard a conversation that led to a more mundane account for things. I heard of a Mr Thomas Cardew, who had found a poor little baby, abandoned in a handbag, and taken it home and raised it as his own to no small level of wealth and privilege. I knew at once that we were brothers, Jack Worthing, and I resolved to find you. To claim back what is rightfully mine.

JACK: Hang on. I am sorry for your circumstances, except that I am glad they are not mine, but I’m not sure I have anything that is rightfully yours.

TWIN: Your name, your life, the clothes you stand in, your very identity is rightfully mine. Because as well as being the smaller, withered, embittered twin, I happen to be the elder.

MISS PRISM: That is true. He is nineteen and a half minutes your senior. (To the TWIN) You were always an impatient child.

TWIN: Meaning I, by rights, should have been the one to inherit our father’s name. I am Ernest Worthing.

MISS PRISM: Moncrieff.

TWIN: Whatever.