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Synopsis

by Martha Liehe



ACT I

As the play opens, in the garden of a humble but picturesque cottage on the border between England and Scotland, two people are conversing. One is Maggie Macfarlane, a pretty country lass; the other is her laddie Angus Macalister, who has just asked for and been granted her hand in marriage. Maggie's widowed mother arrives. Learning of the engagement, she blesses the proposed union. Her only misgivings about young Angus concern his abilities to provide a decent living for her only daughter.

It seems he is adept at placing obstacles on railroad tracks in order to derail them (so much for the rustic naivete of these characters). Once the train is derailed, the passengers must alight and look for refreshment (possibly even overnight accommodations) until repairs can be made. Such provisions are gladly offered by Angus and the Macfarlanes. They pocket in fees and tips as much as they think the traffic will bear. The two ladies then leave the stage, having heard Angus promise he is eager for the impending arrival of a train whose line he has just blocked.

He does not have to wait long, fore here come two passengers much agitated and alarmed. One is a young lady, Miss Belinda Treherne. With her is Belvawney, a young man who speaks to Belinda in terms of obvious endearment. She is openly fond of her escort, too, but is presently in great fear that they will soon be overtaken by a certain Major McGillicuddy. This "barbarous" and jealous man believed Miss Treherne would marry him that very morning. She has escaped for now, but if he finds her with Belvawney, he will surely shoot the pair of them.

In order to put an end once and for all to Belinda's worries about the Major, Belvawney suddenly asks her to become his wife instead. He declares undying love for her, and she replies in the same vein. However, she admits to being curious about his "pecuniary position". Belvawney then explains a somewhat strange condition under which he is placed: it appears he has a friend, one Mr. Cheviot Hill, who, although secure financially, is remarkably stingy. Hill has a most unfortunate habit of proposing marriage to every young woman he meets. His father, recognizing the influence Belvawney has on Cheviot, provides the friend with £1000 yearly so long as young Hill remains single. Should Cheviot die or marry, the money becomes the property of his uncle Symperson, who was traveling with his nephew on the same train that carried Belinda and Belvawney. Miss Treherne is decidedly displeased with what she perceives as an impermanent financial arrangement, and rejects the proposal. She then goes away.

But Belvawney does not give up easily. He recalls something he has heard about scottish customs: if two people declare their willingness to be wed, then, in Scotland, they are indeed man and wife [shades of fairy marriage]. While he is thus conniving to talk Belinda into matrimony, Maggie Macfarlane appears. Belvawney questions her about what constitutes a Scotch marriage and she confirms his understanding of the simplicity of the process. Then she goes into the cottage and he leaves also.

No sooner has he gone than the amorous, rich, and attractive Cheviot Hill and his Uncle Symperson come in, both looking disheveled from the train accident. The younger man, true to his parsimonious nature, bemoans the ruination of his hat and gloves.

Symperson, however, is much more concerned about the £1000 he will receive annually if Cheviot marries. He suggests his daughter Minnie as an excellent choice for matrimony. To this, his nephew agrees, making Symperson delighted and anxious for a wedding date to be set. The money thus to be obtained will, to be sure, rob Belvawney of his own yearly salary. Cheviot warns his uncle not to tell his friend of the dire change in his future wealth; he also reminds Symperson that Belvawney's eyes exercise a strange, hypnotic power over his own will. Under the influence of these compelling rays, Cheviot must carry out whatever schemes Belvawney may concoct. Symperson vows silence, rejoicing that he is soon to be smiled upon by Fortune; he then exits.

Young Hill now contemplates the joys he'll experience when Minnie becomes his mate. He speaks of her in such glowing terms that he is overheard by Belvawney who is naturally dismayed to learn of his friend's approaching marriage. Cheviot declares that even Belvawney's powerful eyes shall no longer control him with their lurid fires. His love for Minnie is so strong and she is so good, so beautiful that he will overcome all obstacles to wed her. He orders Belvawney out.

Just as soon as he is gone, Cheviot's adoration is put to the test. Maggie has come in, a lovely young woman, indeed. He cannot resist, and goes so far as to put his arm around her waist and steal a kiss. This inflames him to such a degree that he actually implores her to become his wife. But Maggie's loyal heart demands a refusal since she is engaged already. Hill, in a rage asks to know the fellow's name that he may curse him. The arrival of Angus makes this unnecessary, for he embraces Maggie tenderly and they both weep. Cheviot is deeply touched; forgetting to curse Angus, he extols the virtues of his own position and tries desperately to convince them that marriage to him would bring eternal happiness to Maggie. To prove his sincerity, Cheviot offers money to Angus. After many protestations, the ante is set at £2. Maggie asserts she will never be worth that much to poor Angus, so he, crying openly, hands her over and pockets the coins. They enter the cottage.

Once more alone, Cheviot prides himself on winning such a girl as Maggie, for she is not only pretty but, he feels certain, will never be extravagant. As he is singing her praises, who should walk by but Belinda. Fickle as always, Cheviot is drawn to her obvious charms. She is sad, however, and he is curious as to the reason. He even suggests a gift of cash if this would cheer her. When she declines to accept it, he is infatuated by her well-bred modesty. In a gush of emotion, Cheviot proposes to Belinda. But her soul and hand are already promised to his friend Belvawney. This enrages Cheviot. He vows to cut off Belvawney's annual income by himself marrying Minnie Symperson. Belinda implores him, for her sake, to remain forever single.

Suddenly Belvawney appears, greatly alarmed. Major McGillicuddy has tracked them down and demands a confrontation with his erstwhile bride, Belinda. Cheviot proves master of the situation. Pushing Belvawney aside, he convinces Belinda to put her arms around his neck. The Major, armed with pistols, rushes in, ordering them to separate at once. But he is too late: Belinda and Cheviot declare themselves to be man and wife. Maggie and Angus show up and hear the entire episode. She falls sobbing on his shoulders, the major sobs uncontrollably, Belvawney tears his hair, and the curtain falls.


ACT II

Three months have elapsed. We are now in the drawing room of Symperson's London home. There are signs that a wedding is about to take place. It is Minnie's for she enters in a wedding gown, attended by her maid Parker. Minnie get's Parker's assurance that she is indeed beautiful, and shall be exceedingly happy as the wife of Cheviot Hill. Her papa (Symperson) enters, also dressed in his best suit. He tells his daughter that, although he hates to lose her, he'll enjoy having £1000 a year as consolation. Symperson then gives Minnie advice about how to handle a husband. They both agree that, although Cheviot has so far had his own way in decision-making, all this will end abruptly as soon as Minnie becomes Mrs. Hill. She then goes off- stage and Belinda enters, dressed as if for a funeral. When she sees Symperson, she believes him to be a servant and asks him to fetch Minnie.

The two girls meet and rush into each other's arms, since they have been good friends since childhood. Belinda had not known this was to be Minnie's wedding day; she then reviews her own strange encounter with the married state. Fleeing from a man she hated, she met a young, wealthy stranger. On his advice, she declared herself to be his wife. Although she has not seen him since that day, belinda knows that, according to a quaint Scottish law, they are indeed married. Minnie finds this predicament amusing; her friend, horrified by it, does agree to go home and dress herself in clothing appropriate to the occasion, shedding the black she has worn ever since her ill- fated "marriage" took place. The girls go out together.

Cheviot, in bridegroom apparel, enters, pondering upon the step he is about to take. Will he forever regret this day? Then he sees Parker, the maid, and, true to his nature, finds her adorable. Soon his arm is around her waist, although he constantly reminds himself that this is unseemly conduct for a bridegroom-to-be. Fortunately, they are interrupted by Minnie before Cheviot proposes to Parker. The maid leaves, disgusted that she hasn't been given a few coins. Now the young couple discuss the nuptial arrangements and make plans for their life to come. Cheviot's miserliness is proven by his sharp cutting of corners for the bridal cake and his ideas of an ideal marital situation: Minnie shall prepare absurdly simple economical meals and sew all the suits her husband requires (shades of The Grand Duke). He does, however, tell his bride-to-be that he is hiring servants to look after her father. She believes Cheviot to be the soul of goodness and leaves in a state of bliss. He stays behind, thinking for a moment of the "tall girl" he met in Scotland, but soon talks himself out of this reverie.

Belvawney appears, feeling awful: he is deeply in love with Miss Treherne, but she insists she is already wed, thanks to the custom of Scotland. She is, furthermore, determined to learn the identity of her husband, the sooner the better. Cheviot tries to console his friend: is there no way out of this predicament? Suddenly, Belvawney realizes there is one possible solution: if the cottage where the vows were spoken is in England, no marriage exists. If it is in Scotland, they are man and wife. He has decided to write to the owner of the house to ascertain the truth. Both young men declare this situation to be immoral and, in the heat of their anguish, Cheviot confesses this is to be his wedding day. Belvawney is near panic at this disclosure: how can he face the loss of his yearly stipend? To ruin Cheviot's pleasure, Belvawney denounces him, saying there will be no wedding because Cheviot is already a married man! Now it s Cheviot's turn to panic. On bended knee, he begs Belvawney not to spoil the nuptials, especially since money has already been spent to provide food, travel tickets, etc.

Now Belvawney decides to play his trump card: he fixes Cheviot in the glare of his magnetic eyes. Laughing fiendishly, the defiant man roars his hateful news. He can prove Cheviot's marriage to Belinda because he is the only witness left! Declaring that the cottage in question has since been torn down and its occupants have left the country, Belvawney exits in satanic glee. Poor Cheviot is desolate until he realizes that his bride has been missing for months, the cottage has been pulled down, and those who lived there are far away. Belvawney, therefore, isn't capable of proving anything. Cheviot makes up his mind to proceed with his marriage to Minnie.

At this point, Angus and the Macfarlanes appear. They are the rustics hired by Hill to serve Symperson. Although they don't recognize Cheviot, he knows immediately who they are and asks them to go away. Suddenly Maggie remembers: this is the man who asked for her hand and gave Angus money to relinquish her. Desperate again, Cheviot confides to them his weakness: he always proposes marriage to every pretty girl he meets. As they grope to understand this predicament, Minnie and her father come in. Cheviot covers his chagrin by pretending Mrs. Macfarlane is a washerwoman who has presented him with an exorbitant bill. Maggie, however, becomes hysterical and tells the truth to the Sympersons: Cheviot proposed to her three months ago. She further asserts that she witnessed his marriage to yet a different beautiful lady at that time. Minnie and her father are confused and enraged, even though Cheviot hotly denies having wed a woman whose name he doesn't even know. Symperson, fearing the loss of his promised stipend, demands and explanation, but young Hill cannot give him one.

But Belvawney can! He enters now, assuring the assembled company that he was present when Cheviot and a certain lady declared themselves to be man and wife several months earlier on the border of England and Scotland. Symperson accepts this, telling her daughter to find herself another husband, and Belvawney to find some other source of income. Not to be so easily dismissed, Belvawney reveals the puzzling facts that no one can be sure exactly where the cottage stood. And where, pray, is the missing woman?

As if in answer, here comes the lovely Belinda, now dressed prettily for the wedding of her chum Minnie. In that instant, Belinda and Cheviot recognize each other and rush into a rapturous embrace. Belvawney staggers back, Minnie faints, Maggie sobs, and the curtain falls.


ACT III

Once again we are in Symperson's London house. Three days have gone by since the end of Act II. Belvawney is singing at the piano to entertain Belinda and Minnie. The girls pay him lavish compliments, saying the weary days of waiting have passed pleasantly, thanks to his songs, riddles, and conjuring tricks. We learn that the reason for the delay is that Cheviot has gone to Scotland to determine the exact location of the fateful cottage. He is expected back momentarily. Much depends, both romantically and financially, on what he shall discover.

And here he is. As Belvawney watches the cab approach from the window, he asserts that whichever girl loses Cheviot shall, if she agrees, marry him instead. He then goes out, Cheviot enters; the ladies are bursting with questions. But alas! He cannot resolve the puzzle, for those who own the cottage have left the country and are on their way to Central Africa. Belinda and Minnie are inconsolable. Cheviot advises patience; after all, until further information can be received, he is engaged to them goth and will divide his affection equally. He is jealous when he learns how little they missed him during his absence, thanks to Belvawney's charms. In the ensuing heated discussion, the girls remind Cheviot that Maggie is also involved in this mess. He would, of course, gladly marry all three of them if the law would allow such goings-on.

Symperson then enters with two letters. One is from the cottage's owner, written before he went to Africa. Ripping it open, he reads that the cottage is "certainly in England". Belinda faints, realizing she has lost Cheviot. But she resolves not to give up, once she has revived, and leaves suddenly. Symperson then reads the other letter: it is from Belvawney. According to him, the Indestructible Bank has stopped payment on Cheviot's shares and they are worthless. When she hears this, Minnie voices her decision to leave Cheviot and flounces away. Her father is indeed crestfallen. Now he won't get his annual gift, and he bemoans the horrid materialism of the human race.

Cheviot comes in, more unhappy than before. None of his three darlings can ever become his own. He commiserates with his uncle, and they both feel that the only way out of this is for Cheviot to end his life. Drowning himself in the nearby river seems the likeliest solution. Symperson shakes his nephew's hand, believing him ready to die, and goes out. Left alone, Cheviot thinks of Belinda: could she ever possibly love him for himself alone? He resolves to find out once and for all. He is overheard by Belvawney, who, coming in unexpectedly, assures his friend that he's too late: Miss Treherne has already given her hand and her heart to himself. This is the last straw for poor Cheviot who draws a pistol from his pocket to end his misery.

Belvawney, greatly upset, offers to surrender Belinda if Cheviot will reconsider. He then confesses he wrote the bank statement himself to gain her love. Cheviot's anger begins to dissipate when he believes he shall have both money and the girl he adores. Enter Symperson, attired in black: he has come to see Cheviot die. When he discovers the young man's change of heart, he gleefully declares he has just seen Belvawney and Belinda leaving together in a cab, affectionately entwined. Cheviot is duped again! He vows revenge and swears he will marry anyone. Why not Minnie? Overjoyed, Symperson goes to find his daughter. She shows up and Cheviot proposes. But when he becomes aware of her mercenary attitude toward his wealth, Cheviot is utterly turned off by Minnie and renounces her. In desperation, he sends for Maggie Macfarlane.

When she arrives, accompanied by her mother and Angus, Cheviot offers marriage to Maggie. She sobs bitterly: she has just filed an action against him for breach of promise. It is already in the hands of her solicitor. Cheviot feels cursed. Mrs. Macfarlane even suggests he might marry her, but he draws the line at this, depressed though he is.

At this moment, Belinda and Belvawney return, followed by Minnie and Symperson. Cheviot's fears are well-grounded, for indeed the first two persons have just appeared before a registrar and recited their marriage vows. Once again, Cheviot draws his gun. But wait! There is yet hope. Symperson decides to reread the letter concerning the property's location. He sees that the owner has instructed that the page be turned over. Lo and behold, although the cottage is in England, the garden is in Scotland — and Cheviot married Belinda in the garden! An ecstatic Cheviot embraces an equally euphoric Belinda; Belvawney turns to Minnie for comfort, Angus gives solace to Maggie, and Mrs. Macfarlane reposes on the bosom of Symperson.


This article appeared in Issue 37 (April 1993) of Precious Nonsense, the newsletter of the Midwestern Gilbert & Sullivan Society. Posted by permission of Sarah Cole, Society Secretary/Archivist. For information on Society membership write to: The Midwestern Gilbert & Sullivan Society, c/o Miss Sarah Cole, 613 W. State St., North Aurora, IL 60542-1538.

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