Scene: The Dastardly Duke and the Spirited Heroine (in the role of governess) now take dinner together, in the great hall of his castle somewhere on the Yorkshire Moors. The great hall is, of course, full of sinister shadows cast by the flickering candles. The Spirited Heroine does not, of course, occupy the chair at the foot of the table, which is drawn back invitingly.
DD: Damn me! This sinister flickering gets on my nerves of an evening. I know I’m meant to be sinister and brooding, with surroundings to match, but I sometimes wish electricity was invented (A warning jolt from the censor) – Ouch! Apart from the censor giving me shocks for anachronisms, that is.
SH: [The glow of her reddish hair, and the pearly tinge to her skin lit up by the candlelight] Well, they use it for those grotesque experiments with galvanism, of course, where they bring a newly hanged criminal back to life.
DD: What? If only I’d known – when – when…[Grimaces and hastily refills his glass of wine]. No matter. Do I live, or do I grind out an existence of dust and ashes. No smile of mine has illuminated this gloomy castle these ten years, because no smile of hers… No matter. What were we speaking of? [Savagely] And I don’t care if that’s ungrammatical.
SH: [Kindly changing the subject, though burning with curiosity] Your Grace, I am honoured that you stoop to eat with a hireling. Why, in my last post, I had to take my dinner from a tray served in the schoolroom. Still, at least I could read and eat. At least I could put my elbows on the table, and read.
DD: [Savagely addressing the footman] The main course, you damned low born cur!
Footman: [Aside] This is so demeaning, in front of one of my former heroines. I was a fool to risk demotion in putting off recalling her to my arms in our last, even if she was tiresome! The number of times I’ve beaten this wretch with the flat of my sword when he was the villain! Still, from the way he’s carrying on this time, he’ll soon be demoted again. [bows and clumps out].
SH: [Aside] Such savagery! I must get to the bottom of this Intriguing Mystery surrounding the isolation of this wickedly handsome and embittered man. [aside] Thank goodness I’ve got that line out with a straight face. Now it will be a plain sailing through the Gothic bits.
DD: You may wonder at it, my good young lady. But I sometimes weary of my own company, and I saw you were a female of spirit. I am surprised, almost sorry, to think of your charms wilting in a schoolroom, under the care of tiresome brats.
SH: Really, Sir, surely you do not see your own daughters in such a light? I haven’t met my sweet pupils yet.
DD: You won’t find them so. And why shouldn’t I see ‘em as brats? I care for nobody and nothing since the death of my first wife. I didn’t give a hang for the second.
SH: You have been unlucky, Sir, twice widowed, and yet still in your prime.
[Enter footman, lugging a heavy silver tray]
Footman: I wish there was a service lift in this place – I know, anachronism, Ouch! [Sets down the dish on the table]. Do you wish me to carve, Your Grace?
DD: No, get out of it. I’ll serve us both. [Carves the joint savagely. A sudden flash of lightning illuminates the chair at the foot of the table, and in its light, a ghostly figure is visible there.]
SH: [Continues to eat a moment, as if reluctant to leave her dinner. Then drops her knife and fork]. My goodness, I thought I saw –
DD: [With set, ghastly look] Then you saw it too? Can I credit my eyes after all?
Footman: [Coming back in] And here’s the rest of the courses.
DD: Curse you, fellow, I haven’t rang – [He breaks off at another flash of lightning. Now the ghostly figure is clearly visible in the chair] It is She!
SH: Oh dear, there is never an uninterrupted meal in these Gothics.
Footman: [To spectre, gabbling hysterically] Some nice beef, Your Grace?
Spectre: Why not? [smiles round generally], then vanishes.
DD: She smiled so, on all…[quotes brokenly] ‘Then smiles stopped altogether…’ Ouch! What was that for, you cursed censor?
Footman: Anachronism! Robert Browning’s poem ‘My Last Duchess’ was not written until 1840. This is 1812, and you’re not the sixteenth century Duke of Ferrara, who in the poem had his wife killed for arousing his insane jealousy, you’re the Duke of Somewhere Made Up in the Yokrshire Moors, and it is only rumoured that your beloved late wife died at your hands, though your mad possessiveness was legendery throughout the moors.
DD: Leave me, you literary minded low born cur!
Footman: Only too happy, you Miserable Murderer!
DD: You lie, you damned insolent dog! [Leaps up and chases him from the dining hall. The sounds of a violent dispute and blows exchanged drift back through the open doors]
SH: I’m glad he’s fighting back. He’s quite sweet, really. I much prefer him to this current hero.
[The spectre of the Duchess re-appears, smiling again]
SH: Your Grace, you seem very friendly. Shall we have some girl talk? [wearily] Yes, I know, anachronism…
Authors Note; The full text of Robert Browning’s fascinating and brilliant dramatic poem can be found on: