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Title: Mrs. Fry Has A Visitor
Author: Josephine Tey (writing as Gordon Daviot)
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1600351h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  March 2016
Most recent update: March 2016

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Mrs. Fry Has A Visitor


Gordon Daviot

Cover Image

A Play in One Act

First Published in Leith Sands and Other Short Plays, Duckworth, 1946

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2016


                         In order of appearance

                          YOUNG LADY.
                          MRS. FRY.

A room in a London suburban house in the early forties of last century.
In a wheeled chair is sitting an impressive old lady in Quaker attire. A
book is lying on her lap and spectacles are still on her nose, but she
is not reading. Her eyes are closed, and her face, until lately so
confident, so energetic, so—shall we say it?—domineering, has slipped
into lines of sadness, weakness, and doubt.

There is a tentative tap on the door, of which the dreaming old woman
seems to be unaware, and the door opens to admit a charming and
fashionable YOUNG LADY. She is in her early twenties, and has a gentle
and composed manner, tinged now with shyness since she is evidently a
stranger in the room. She closes the door quietly, and stands for a
moment looking across the room at her hostess.

  YOUNG LADY.: [Tentatively] Mrs. Fry. [MRS. FRY opens her eyes, puts
up a slow arm to remove her glasses, and turns her head to look] Your
maid said that I might come in.

  MRS. FRY.: Oh, yes. Come in, my dear. You wanted to speak to me.

  YOUNG LADY.: [Advancing into the room] It is very kind of you to see me—a
stranger. Especially when you are ill.

  MRS. FRY.: [Dryly] You have been listening to Mary. I am not ill.
Merely an old woman—and a little sad.

  YOUNG LADY.: Sad, Mrs. Fry?

  MRS. FRY.: Find a chair, my dear. [The YOUNG LADY is too much
interested in MRS. FRY to withdraw her attention, and presently she
sinks on the stool by MRS. FRY'S chair] It is always a sad thing to
come to the end of one's life before one has come to the end of one's

  YOUNG LADY.: But, Mrs. Fry, there will always be someone to carry on your
work. Women who will devote themselves to it heart and soul, as you

  MRS. FRY.: They say that queens are apt to look with a bleak eye on
their successors. I can understand their emotions. Even a cook finds it
difficult to believe that anyone can roast a chicken as well as she can.
How much more when a woman has changed the face of humanity does she
. . . But it is vanity, of course, and very reprehensible. I pray
constantly for humility. Don't sit on the stool, child. There is a
comfortable chair over there.

  YOUNG LADY.: [Not moving] It was to sit at your feet that I came. You must
think it very presumptuous of me to force myself on you like this. But I
had wanted to see you for a very long time. I kept hoping that we might
meet somewhere. By accident, I mean. That I might walk into some
drawing-room and find you there. In fact, it was the only thing that
made paying calls with Mamma bearable. I used to say to myself: Perhaps,
who knows, Mrs. Fry will be there. And when you were not: Oh, well,
perhaps to-morrow at the Bracebridges, or the day after at the Herberts.
It gave some meaning to the silly business. And then I heard that you
were not going out any more. And so I made up my mind to come to see
you. It took me some weeks to get up my courage—and I must confess when
I was confronted with your maid my courage dropped quite a lot.

  MRS. FRY.: [Amused] Yes, Mary is very formidable. Even I quaver
occasionally before Mary. [Looking on her visitor with a new eye] It
occurs to me that if you overcame Mary you must . . . [She is going to
say: "You must be something more than a silly and fashionable young
woman" but she thinks better of it] Did you come alone?

  YOUNG LADY.: No, I confided in Aunt Mai, and she brought me in the carriage.
She is driving round until I come out. We are supposed to be buying

  MRS. FRY.: Am I to understand that I would be considered a bad

  YOUNG LADY.: Oh, no. No, of course not. But you would be held to be . . .
adding fuel to my oddity, so to speak.

  MRS. FRY.: Are you odd?

  YOUNG LADY.: According to my family, I am extremely odd. You see, the life
they lead seems to me quite ridiculous. A waste of time, and energy, and
interest. I am bored to desperation by their activities.

  MRS. FRY.: What is wrong with this family of yours? Is it not a
pleasant and united one?

  YOUNG LADY.: United, Mrs. Fry, is the appropriate word. Every evening we sit
united in the drawing-room and watch the hands of the clock move round
to ten, when we retire. Every morning Papa reads The Times aloud to my
sister and me. It takes hours. Parthe—that's my sister—Parthe goes on
with her drawing, but for me—for me it is like lying on one's back with
one's hands tied and having liquid poured down one's throat. I don't
know which is worse: those endless evenings or those boring mornings. In
the afternoon we receive, or pay calls. All my life I have wanted to do
useful things; big, important things; and what have I done this last
fortnight? I have read the Daughter at Home to Papa; a volume of
Sybil to Mamma. Learned seven tunes by heart. Paid eight visits. And
written a few letters.

  MRS. FRY.: Those "useful" things you talk about . . . [She pauses in

  YOUNG LADY.: I want to do work like yours. You went into the prisons when no
woman would dream of doing such a thing. I expect they thought that
you were very odd. And you made those dreadful sties into clean,
healthy places. That is done, but there are so many other things crying
to be done; so many. I have tried to help the poor in the villages—

  MRS. FRY.: [Interrupting] The villages?

  YOUNG LADY.: Papa has two country places; one in Derbyshire and one in the
New Forest. I look after the sick people in the villages, and try to
improve their condition, to teach them things—or as much as I know
myself. My family let me do that, because it is a ladylike enough
occupation, and they are our own people. But when I suggest that I might
go somewhere and learn a little myself—to a hospital or some such
place—they are horrified. What am I to do, Mrs. Fry? The precious days
run away to waste. What am I to do?

  MRS. FRY.: Tell me, child: you are very young and attractive; have you
no suitors?

  YOUNG LADY.: Oh, yes; I have the usual amount.

  MRS. FRY.: And you are not drawn to any of them?

  YOUNG LADY.: There is one whom I find pleasant. [Dropping the subject] But
I don't want to marry anyone. I don't want to spend my life in domestic
duties; in ordering meals and seeing that the dusting is done. I want to
devote my life to serving the community.

  MRS. FRY.: Marriage, my dear, is even more indispensable to the
community than hospitals. [As her visitor is about to interrupt] There
may be nothing very glorious in making a home; but anything and
everything may be done to the glory of God.

  YOUNG LADY.: [In a burst] Mrs. Fry, I will not spend my life arranging
flowers to the glory of God. [More quietly; half apologetic for her
bluntness, half accusing] I thought that you would understand; you of
all people.

  MRS. FRY.: You must not think me unsympathetic because I show you other
roads. You come to me for comfort; for advice, perhaps. I have to think,
then, of your happiness as well as the needs of the poor. I should not
like you to miss the happiness that marriage can bring. I have brought
up a large family, and I can . . . [she falters a moment] can compare
the relative values of children's love and of—of . . . [Her voice dies
away and she appears to be musing.]

  YOUNG LADY.: [Gently] Mrs. Fry, I know where my happiness lies. What I
don't know is how to achieve it. I thought that you might help me. That
you might tell me how you managed your family—when you were a girl, I
mean, and your mind was filled with thoughts of service for others.

  MRS. FRY.: [Dreamily] My mind was filled with nothing but a pair of

  YOUNG LADY.: Boots!

  MRS. FRY.: How strange. I had not remembered those boots for fifty
years. Purple, they were; with scarlet laces. Very smart. I went to
Meeting in them, and thought a great deal more about them than I did
about God. A very frivolous young creature I was; with an eighteen-inch
waist and a liking for military bands. And then, when I was admiring my
boots, I suddenly heard what the preacher was saying; and I found it so
moving that I cried. I went home and shed my finery and became a "plain
Friend". [She pauses and resumes in a drier tone] I became, too, a
great affliction to my sisters. The worst of virtue is its tendency to
self-righteousness. Are you an affliction to your family, do you think?

  YOUNG LADY.: [Startled by this new viewpoint] I don't know. I had not
thought of it. I hope I am.

  MRS. FRY.: [Startled in her turn] You hope so?

  YOUNG LADY.: If I afflict them sufficiently they may be moved to let me go.
Like Pharaoh after the plagues.

  MRS. FRY.: [Smiling at her] My dear, you are much too charming to
turn yourself into a plague. Why not go on with your good work in the
villages, and find your happiness there.

  YOUNG LADY.: Because I don't know enough! I must learn. I must fit myself for
my work. I will not be an amateur; a ladylike dabbler in lotions; a
district visitor with cake and calf's-foot jelly in a basket. I want to
do serious work.

  MRS. FRY.: But in your own villages there is scope, surely, for—

  YOUNG LADY.: [Breaking in] Oh, Mrs. Fry, why do you discourage me! [It
is a cri de coeur.]

  MRS. FRY.: [Mildly] Because, my child, in the course of my long life
a great many fashionable young ladies have come to me, filled with
visions of service, of self-sacrifice. They all had excellent hearts,
but no sense of reality. They saw themselves leading a crusade, with
banners flying. Now, the essence of crusading is not banners, but
remembering to pack the spoons. And not one of these young women was a

  YOUNG LADY.: But I am not like that. I am the most practical person in the
world. You think because I wear expensive clothes that I am a ninny. But
that is not fair. It is not my fault that Papa is well-to-do, and that I
was brought up to be ornamental, and sent abroad to be finished, and
presented at Court, and dragged round in a carriage as if I had lost the
use of my legs. I am not to be blamed for that. Am I not doing my best
to escape from such an existence? Was it not to look for help in such an
escape that I came here this afternoon?

  MRS. FRY.: [Smiling a little; kindly] And now you are beginning to be
sorry you came.

  YOUNG LADY.: Oh, no. However much you snub me, you are still Elizabeth Fry
and I have met and talked to you. That is a great thing. But . . .

  MRS. FRY.: But what?

  YOUNG LADY.: If you will forgive my being frank, you puzzle me.

  MRS. FRY.: In what way?

  YOUNG LADY.: Well, for one thing, you too came from a leisured home. I have
read everything that has been written about you, you see. And that has
not prevented your being efficient and practical. Why should you take it
for granted that—that . . .

  MRS. FRY.: [Supplying the words] That I am unique.

  YOUNG LADY.: [Accepting this] It is almost as if you didn't want me to do
the work; as if you did not approve of the idea. You—you sound almost
like Mamma.

  MRS. FRY.: I take it that that is the height of opprobrium. [As her
visitor is about to amend her speech] No, don't alter it, my child. I
like frankness. Would it shock you if I said that I did not approve?

  YOUNG LADY.: [At a loss] I don't think I should believe it. Why should
you disapprove? It can't be merely because you want me to please my

  MRS. FRY.: No. I did not please mine.

  YOUNG LADY.: Nor because you think the work is unwomanly or some such thing.

  MRS. FRY.: No; it is a woman's work.

  YOUNG LADY.: Then why?

  MRS. FRY.: Because I like you, my dear, and I want you to be happy. And
public service gives great rewards, but happiness, earthly or spiritual,
is not one of them.

  YOUNG LADY.: [After a pause of astonishment] But, Mrs. Fry, I can imagine
no greater happiness on earth than to have achieved what you have. To
have bettered the lot of thousands of human beings. There can be no
greater happiness.

  MRS. FRY.: It is a satisfaction, of course. A greater satisfaction
would be one's children's love.

  YOUNG LADY.: But . . . [She cannot venture into speech.]

  MRS. FRY.: [Understanding what she would have said] Oh, yes; they are
devoted to me. They are good children. But in their hearts they think of
me as Elizabeth Fry. Elizabeth Fry, the darling of the committees. It is
not a very cosy thing to have a mother who is a detachable part of a
committee. And power, my child, is a corrupting thing. A veritable
cancer of the spirit. One continually wants more of it. Soon the praise
begins to sound sweet in one's ears. One develops an appetite for it.
One begins to accept oneself at the world's valuation. And what is left
then? Nothing but a monstrous image, as false and hollow as the horse of
Troy. [She pauses; and then in a brisker, conversational tone] And if
you think, my dear young lady, that nothing in the least like that would
ever happen to you, you are greatly wrong. That is exactly what happens
to every one who is given worldly power. Since I have been ill I have
had time to look back on my life. [Returning to contemplation again]
What a very vain, domineering creature I turned out to be.

  YOUNG LADY.: That I can not believe.

  MRS. FRY.: [Her mind busy with the past] I had a beautiful voice when
I was young. Everyone remarked upon it; and I read aloud to the general
admiration. The admiration was so general that I read aloud to all and
sundry for fifty years. Men, women, and children; the sick, the
heartbroken, the illiterate; they were moved to the point of tears. And
then, just lately, I fell ill, and I was read aloud to. And believe
me, my child, I know now why those unhappy people wept.

  YOUNG LADY.: [Amused] I confess that it is not one of my favourite
amusements. But, Mrs. Fry, everyone has a small vanity; that they—

  MRS. FRY.: No vanity is small. It is the drop which poisons the whole.
At the very moment when I was praying God for humility my mind would
present me with the fact that the Duchess of Gloucester was coming to

  YOUNG LADY.: But that is not vanity! It is no more vanity than noticing the
pattern of the carpet. It can never have mattered to you that royalty
should pay you attention.

  MRS. FRY.: [Considering it] No. [Dryly] But one began to notice it
if they failed to.

  YOUNG LADY.: [Desperate and putting her hand down] Mrs. Fry, if you went to
bed every night with Debrett, it wouldn't alter the fact that old Mrs.
Vigor has a bad leg and that the greatest ambition of my life is to make
it a good one. You bother me with abstractions, and all I care about is
brass tacks. First you hold up the theoretical joys of marriage—

  MRS. FRY.: [Horrified] My dear young lady!

  YOUNG LADY.: Then you suggest that I am impractical. Then you prophesy that I
should become a monster of vanity. Please, Mrs. Fry, let us talk about
bad legs. Bad legs and how I can cure them.

  MRS. FRY.: [Not much liking the turn in the conversation] The first
duty of a good nurse, I have always understood, is to obey the doctor's

  YOUNG LADY.: Which doctor? Old Mrs. Vigor has had seven. They all prescribed
different things. And she still has her bad leg.

  MRS. FRY.: That suggests to me that the leg is incurable.

  YOUNG LADY.: What it suggests to me is that the doctors don't know their

  MRS. FRY.: Is not that a little presumptuous in a young, untrained—

  YOUNG LADY.: [Interrupting] If I could go somewhere and learn. See a
great many sick people, and see what is done for them. What is tried and
what fails. I know I could cure old Mrs. Vigor.

  MRS. FRY.: Do you consider yourself wiser than a doctor?

  YOUNG LADY.: I don't know about wiser. I wash a great deal oftener. And I
can bandage a great deal better. And I don't think that because a thing
was laid down in the year 500 it is necessarily either truth or wisdom.
And I don't consider that I am omniscient and beyond criticism. I don't
believe myself to be an oracle.

  MRS. FRY.: [With gentle malice] Don't you, my dear?

   [Brought up with a round turn; humour breaking through] Oh, Mrs.
      Fry! Is that what I sound like?

  YOUNG LADY.: MRS. FRY. I think you are well on the way to being an oracle.

  YOUNG LADY.: [Contemplating it] How dreadful if all I turned out to be was
a dragon. [Taking heart] Well, I wouldn't mind even that if I
dragooned people into being well. They could curse me all they liked as
long as they stood up on their own two feet to do it. I can imagine no
lovelier moment than . . . [She pauses to listen] I think I hear . . .
That sounds like the carriage. [Going to the window] Oh, yes, it is!
It's Aunt Mai, back already. Oh, dear, now I shall have to go. And I
have said none of the things . . . I haven't even convinced you . . . I
have intruded and bothered you all to no purpose. You don't believe in
me. You think I am a romantic-minded ninny. You—

  MRS. FRY.: [Soothing, but unconvincing] No, my dear, no.

  YOUNG LADY.: You have held up one bogy after another to frighten and dissuade
me. You—

  MRS. FRY.: No, my child, no. I think you are a very fine young woman
with an excellent heart and great vitality. [She is quite unconsciously
patronising; like most women who have become legends in their own day
she finds it difficult to believe that her quality can be duplicated.]

  YOUNG LADY.: That means I am restless.

  MRS. FRY.: [Still gently patronising] A little headstrong, perhaps.
Like all young things. But willing to serve others; and that is a great
thing. Learn to harness that willingness to an appropriate object. Be
content with your own small corner of usefulness. You will find it
rewarding. Go on with your good work in the villages, my dear. And some
day I hope you will marry that suitor whom you "find pleasant"; and that
you will bring your first child to see me if I am still here.

  YOUNG LADY.: It was kind of you to see me, to-day. I shall always be
grateful to you for that—even if you don't believe in me. I know it was
presumptuous of me to invade your privacy, to force myself upon you. A
great many importunate people must have—must have attacked that privacy
at one time or another. It was kind of you to listen to one more.
Forgive me for tiring you, won't you?

  MRS. FRY.: [Refusing the suggestion of tiredness] No, it has been
pleasant to talk with a young creature, and remember my own youth.

  YOUNG LADY.: I must go now. Aunt Mai will be waiting.

  MRS. FRY.: Goodbye, my dear. [She sounds a little distrait.]

  YOUNG LADY.: Goodbye, Mrs. Fry; and thank you again.

  MRS. FRY.: [As the YOUNG LADY reaches the door; without emphasis or
great interest] Mary told me your name, but I forget what she said.

  YOUNG LADY.: Nightingale, Mrs. Fry. Florence Nightingale.

   MRS. FRY nods her acknowledgment and picks up her spectacles.



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