It is Mrs. Higgins's at-home day. Nobody has yet arrived. Her drawing-room, in a flat on Chelsea embankment, has three windows looking on the river; and the ceiling is not so lofty as it would be in an older house of the same pretension. The windows are open, giving access to a balcony with flowers in pots. If you stand with your face to the windows, you have the fireplace on your left and the door in the right-hand wall close to the corner nearest the windows.
Mrs. Higgins was brought up on Morris and Burne Jones; and her room, which is very unlike her son's room in Wimpole Street, is not crowded with furniture and little tables and nicknacks. In the middle of the room there is a big ottoman; and this, with the carpet, the Morris wall-papers, and the Morris chintz window curtains and brocade covers of the ottoman and its cushions, supply all the ornament, and are much too handsome to be hidden by odds and ends of useless things. A few good oil-paintings from the exhibitions in the Grosvenor Gallery thirty years ago (the Burne Jones, not the Whistler side of them) are on the walls. The only landscape is a Cecil Lawson on the scale of a Rubens. There is a portrait of Mrs. Higgins as she was when she defied fashion in her youth in one of the beautiful Rossettian costumes which, when caricatured by people who did not understand, led to the absurdities of popular estheticism in the eighteen-seventies.
In the corner diagonally opposite the door Mrs. Higgins, now over sixty and long past taking the trouble to dress out of the fashion, sits writing at an elegantly simple writing-table with a bell button within reach of her hand. There is a Chippendale chair further back in the room between her and the window nearest her side. At the other side of the room, further forward, is an Elizabethan chair roughly carved in the taste of Inigo Jones. On the same side a piano in a decorated case. The corner between the fireplace and the window is occupied by a divan cushioned in Morris chintz.
It is between four and five in the afternoon.
The door is opened violently; and Higgins enters with his hat on.
MRS. HIGGINS [dismayed] Henry [scolding him]! What are you doing here to-day? It is my at home day: you promised not to come. [As he bends to kiss her, she takes his hat off, and presents it to him].
HIGGINS. Oh bother! [He throws the hat down on the table].
MRS. HIGGINS. Go home at once.
HIGGINS [kissing her] I know, mother. I came on purpose.
MRS. HIGGINS. But you mustn't. I'm serious, Henry. You offend all my friends: they stop coming whenever they meet you.
HIGGINS. Nonsense! I know I have no small talk; but people don't mind. [He sits on the settee].
MRS. HIGGINS. Oh! don't they? Small talk indeed! What about your large talk? Really, dear, you mustn't stay.
HIGGINS. I must. I've a job for you. A phonetic job.
MRS. HIGGINS. No use, dear. I'm sorry; but I can't get round your vowels; and though I like to get pretty postcards in your patent shorthand, I always have to read the copies in ordinary writing you so thoughtfully send me.
HIGGINS. Well, this isn't a phonetic job.
MRS. HIGGINS. You said it was.
HIGGINS. Not your part of it. I've picked up a girl.
MRS. HIGGINS. Does that mean that some girl has picked you up?
HIGGINS. Not at all. I don't mean a love affair.
MRS. HIGGINS. What a pity!
MRS. HIGGINS. Well, you never fall in love with anyone under forty-five. When will you discover that there are some rather nice-looking young women about?
HIGGINS. Oh, I can't be bothered with young women. My idea of a loveable woman is something as like you as possible. I shall never get into the way of seriously liking young women: some habits lie too deep to be changed. [Rising abruptly and walking about, jingling his money and his keys in his trouser pockets] Besides, they're all idiots.
MRS. HIGGINS. Do you know what you would do if you really loved me, Henry?
HIGGINS. Oh bother! What? Marry, I suppose?
MRS. HIGGINS. No. Stop fidgeting and take your hands out of your pockets. [With a gesture of despair, he obeys and sits down again]. That's a good boy. Now tell me about the girl.
HIGGINS. She's coming to see you.
MRS. HIGGINS. I don't remember asking her.
HIGGINS. You didn't. I asked her. If you'd known her you wouldn't have asked her.
MRS. HIGGINS. Indeed! Why?
HIGGINS. Well, it's like this. She's a common flower girl. I picked her off the kerbstone.
MRS. HIGGINS. And invited her to my at-home!
HIGGINS [rising and coming to her to coax her] Oh, that'll be all right. I've taught her to speak properly; and she has strict orders as to her behavior. She's to keep to two subjects: the weather and everybody's health — Fine day and How do you do, you know — and not to let herself go on things in general. That will be safe.
MRS. HIGGINS. Safe! To talk about our health! about our insides! perhaps about our outsides! How could you be so silly, Henry?
HIGGINS [impatiently] Well, she must talk about something. [He controls himself and sits down again]. Oh, she'll be all right: don't you fuss. Pickering is in it with me. I've a sort of bet on that I'll pass her off as a duchess in six months. I started on her some months ago; and she's getting on like a house on fire. I shall win my bet. She has a quick ear; and she's been easier to teach than my middle-class pupils because she's had to learn a complete new language. She talks English almost as you talk French.
MRS. HIGGINS. That's satisfactory, at all events.
HIGGINS. Well, it is and it isn't.
MRS. HIGGINS. What does that mean?
HIGGINS. You see, I've got her pronunciation all right; but you have to consider not only how a girl pronounces, but what she pronounces; and that's where —
They are interrupted by the parlor-maid, announcing guests.
THE PARLOR-MAID. Mrs. and Miss Eynsford Hill. [She withdraws].
HIGGINS. Oh Lord! [He rises; snatches his hat from the table; and makes for the door; but before he reaches it his mother introduces him].
Mrs. and Miss Eynsford Hill are the mother and daughter who sheltered from the rain in Covent Garden. The mother is well bred, quiet, and has the habitual anxiety of straitened means. The daughter has acquired a gay air of being very much at home in society: the bravado of genteel poverty.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL [to Mrs. Higgins] How do you do? [They shake hands].
MISS EYNSFORD HILL. How d'you do? [She shakes].
MRS. HIGGINS [introducing] My son Henry.
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL. Your celebrated son! I have so longed to meet you, Professor Higgins.
HIGGINS [glumly, making no movement in her direction] Delighted. [He backs against the piano and bows brusquely].
Miss EYNSFORD HILL [going to him with confident familiarity] How do you do?
HIGGINS [staring at her] I've seen you before somewhere. I haven't the ghost of a notion where; but I've heard your voice. [Drearily] It doesn't matter. You'd better sit down.
MRS. HIGGINS. I'm sorry to say that my celebrated son has no manners. You mustn't mind him.
MISS EYNSFORD HILL [gaily] I don't. [She sits in the Elizabethan chair].
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL [a little bewildered] Not at all. [She sits on the ottoman between her daughter and Mrs. Higgins, who has turned her chair away from the writing-table].
HIGGINS. Oh, have I been rude? I didn't mean to be. [He goes to the central window, through which, with his back to the company, he contemplates the river and the flowers in Battersea Park on the opposite bank as if they were a frozen dessert.]
The parlor-maid returns, ushering in Pickering.
THE PARLOR-MAID. Colonel Pickering [She withdraws].
PICKERING. How do you do, Mrs. Higgins?
MRS. HIGGINS. So glad you've come. Do you know Mrs. Eynsford Hill — Miss Eynsford Hill? [Exchange of bows. The Colonel brings the Chippendale chair a little forward between Mrs. Hill and Mrs. Higgins, and sits down].
PICKERING. Has Henry told you what we've come for?
HIGGINS [over his shoulder] We were interrupted: damn it!
MRS. HIGGINS. Oh Henry, Henry, really!
MRS. EYNSFORD HILL [half rising] Are we in the way?
MRS. HIGGINS [rising and making her sit down again] No, no. You couldn't have come more fortunately: we want you to meet a friend of ours.
HIGGINS [turning hopefully] Yes, by George! We want two or three people. You'll do as well as anybody else.
The parlor-maid returns, ushering Freddy.
THE PARLOR-MAID. Mr. Eynsford Hill.
HIGGINS [almost audibly, past endurance] God of Heaven! another of them.
FREDDY [shaking hands with Mrs. Higgins] Ahdedo?
MRS. HIGGINS. Very good of you to come. [Introducing] Colonel Pickering.
FREDDY [bowing] Ahdedo?
MRS. HIGGINS. I don't think you know my son, Professor Higgins.
FREDDY [going to Higgins] Ahdedo?