ALGERNON: If I ever get married, I'll certainly try to forget the fact.
GWENDOLEN: I never change, except in my affections.
Anyone with a passing familiarity with literature could have named a precedent for the scene: a pleasantly tangled pile of four young people, two men and two women, all more than usually attractive, blinking awake in a grassy clearing in a forest. As all four of them were much too well-bred to admit to such a familiarity, however, the unintentional homage passed without comment.
The sun was high, the air was warm, and the ants were taking advantage of the situation to invade one of two large picnic baskets at the edge of the blankets.
The younger of the two women, whose golden hair was adorned with the occasional dirty leaf, lifted her head from where it was pillowed on one gentleman's thigh and said, "Might I trouble one of you for my name?"
"Your name?" said that gentleman, mid-yawn.
"Yes, I appear to have forgotten it." She bit down in a fetching manner on her lower lip. "And -- everything else about my life, as well, but my name does seem the most pressing."
"I'm afraid I won't be much help," said the man regretfully. "I can't remember mine either, let alone anyone else's. How about you?"
This to the other man, who was still stretched out on the blanket and blinking unconcernedly at a patch of sky. Next to him, the second woman was trying to stifle a yawn and arrange her hair at the same time.
"Oh, no, not a thing," this man said. He sat up. "I'm finding it very relaxing, however. I'm sure that whatever my name is, I must be a more than usually thoughtful sort of fellow. This lack of knowledge is a delicious feeling."
At this point the golden-haired girl, feeling a hard corner of something digging into her buttocks, rummaged beneath herself in an indecorous fashion and pulled out a modest volume with an ornate cover.
"Here's something," she said, and opened it. The pages were filled with handwriting, not always adhering strictly to the faint pencil lines that had been ruled with more duty than care across each one, and punctuated with illustrations. These had clearly been cut from other sources and pasted into the diary; in places the paste had puckered the pages into gentle waves.
Inside the front cover was the simple name Cecily.
"There!" she said triumphantly. "I am Cecily, and this is my diary."
"Well, then it is quite simple," said the other woman. "Your diary is sure to tell us who we are, or at least what we have done, which is more or less the same thing. Provided, of course, you are diligent about keeping it up to date."
"You mean I should read it?" said Cecily. She frowned down at the first page. "I do not think that would be polite. If I cannot remember writing it, it is almost as though it were written by a stranger, and I am sure I would never read a stranger's diary in their presence. Besides, my handwriting is quite appalling."
"A sign of an excellent education," said the taller gentleman.
"Ah!" The unnamed woman lifted her wrist, equally triumphant. "My bracelet has an inscription. On one side, To my dear Gwendolen and on the other, from your affectionate cousin Algy. Even if one doesn't have one's memories, it is a comfort to know that one has generous relatives. Indeed, I am sure there are many people whose relatives are wealthy and generous enough that all of society can be persuaded to forget some things, and remember others instead."
"So you are Cecily, and you are Gwendolen," said the shorter gentleman. In fairness, he was also a curly-headed gentleman, whereas the taller man's hair had a certain drooping quality suggesting that any curliness that it might possess was inflicted rather than innate. "Charming names both, I'm sure, but it doesn't help us, does it?"
"Ah!" said the other man, and lunged at him. "Calm down, my dear chap, I'm simply getting a look inside the back of your shirt. There, you see? An embroidered label; they are the fashion, you know. Ernest Moncrieff."
"I do think it quite absurd that you should remember the fashion before your own name," said the newly-dubbed Ernest.
"Nonsense," the other man said, turning around. "It shows impeccable character. Have a look at mine, would you?"
His own label was duly inspected, and a frown fell over Ernest's face. "Now, this can't be right. Yours says Ernest Moncrieff as well."
"There may be nothing to comment on in that," Gwendolen pointed out. Her brown hair had resisted all attempts to be arranged, and the messier tendrils curled down around her face. "After all, there are thousands of John Browns in England, and one would never be surprised to encounter two of them in the same room."
"Indeed," embellished Cecily, "the very fact of your having identical names might be what prompted you to first develop so intimate a friendship that you should think nothing of falling asleep in a forest together."
Both gentlemen frowned thoughtfully at one another. The one whose shirt had been inspected first gave a light cough. "If it helps matters at all, I'm not sure that I feel like an Ernest."
"I, on the other hand, feel decidedly like an Ernest. That settles it."
"It settles it for you," said the other. "Where does it leave me? I have every right to be Ernest as well, no matter how I feel about the name. It's perfectly unfair of you all to have names and leave me without one. And our friendship so intimate, as well."
"Perhaps we are siblings?" suggested Gwendolen. "I feel so fond of you all already."
"Wait!" said Cecily. "We are wearing wedding rings." She lifted that small hand of hers not currently holding the diary, and displayed the gold band, which shone gently in the sunlight. Every other member of the party echoed her gesture. "It would be very irresponsible of our husbands and wives to let us go wandering, in what must be an enchanted forest, without their close supervision. It's nearly certain that we are married to each other."
All four young people looked between one another's faces. Nearly all of them had worn some combination of pleasure, curiosity, annoyance and speculation before Gwendolen cleared her throat and said:
"I am sitting closest to you, am I not?" She reached out and took determined hold of the taller Ernest's hand. "Darling," she added, as though by way of an experiment.
"My dear Gwendolen!" he said obligingly, and pulled her to her feet so that he could more easily take her in his arms.
"Yes," said Gwendolen, when they had gazed deeply -- and, it must be said, inquiringly -- into one another's eyes for some time. "I think you should kiss me now. To make sure it feels correct, you understand."
"Sensible girl!" he said, and did so.
Cecily watched these proceedings with wide eyes for a few moments, then likewise got to her feet. She held an imperious hand out to the Ernest seated beside her.
"I am sure we are just as capable at proving we are married."
"To make sure it feels correct," he said, scrambling upright.
"Exactly." Cecily presented her rosy mouth, firm with resolve, to be kissed.
"This can't be right," said the man still half-embracing Gwendolen, after his own kiss had ended and Cecily's showed no signs of following suit. "I am quite convinced no married man has ever kissed his wife in that unseemly fashion."
Cecily bestowed an approving pat on her potential husband's cheek as she pulled away. "Perhaps we are very newly wed?" she suggested.
"If we are to be truly scientific about this, Cecily, we should not make assumptions. Rather, we should experience both options, and instruct ourselves sternly to compare them with objective minds. Surely some innate preference for our own husband will present itself."
"How clever you are, Gwendolen!" said Cecily. "That is exactly what we should do."
Both women waited. Both men hastily disentangled themselves from their current partner and changed positions, bumping inelegantly into one another as they did so.
"Darling Cecily!" said the one, sportingly.
"Gwendolen, my love!" said the other, not to be outdone.
An even more thoughtful silence followed this round of kisses.
Finally Cecily, who had gone a mild shade of pink, shook herself all over and clutched her diary in a decided manner. "Well, I refuse to be married to either of you while the matter of your Christian names is such a muddle! I am afraid I have changed my mind: you cannot both be Ernest Moncrieff."
"Surely," said Gwendolen, whose hair had been left more of a mess than ever by the enthusiasm of recent activities, "you wandered into this forest with something more than the shirts on your backs?"
Some patting down of pockets resulted, and a battered coin-purse was produced, with a cry of delight ensuing when it was shown to have a name stamped into the leather.
"JOHN WORTHING," read the shorter Ernest, the owner of this accessory. "There, you see. I cannot be Ernest."
Gwendolen, patting vaguely at her own skirts, raised her eyebrows and pulled from a stealthy interior pocket a rather battered scrap of gilded paper. This proved to be an invitation to a party, addressed to one Mrs Gwendolen Moncrieff.
"Mrs Gwendolen Moncrieff," she said, her voice a caress. "I knew I would be married to an Ernest. The very sound of that name sends me into shivers of delight." She moved closer to the presumptive Ernest Moncrieff, who was pulling something from his own pocket. It was a handkerchief, which he unfolded.
"A.M.," he said, gazing at the initials embroidered thereon. "Dash it all, what is the world coming to when a man's own clothes betray him with such inconsistency? M, yes, all very well, but unless the embroiderer of this handkerchief possessed an alarmingly loose grasp of the Roman alphabet, I cannot explain why anyone would spell Ernest with an A."
"A for Algy!" said Cecily, with a little gasp. "Remember your bracelet, Gwendolen."
"Am I to understand," said Mr John Worthing, "that you are laying claim to both Algy and Ernest, as names?"
A.M., or possibly E.M., frowned and returned the handkerchief to its pocket. "Perhaps Algy is my middle name, and I go by it amongst my friends?"
"I call that sensible," put in Cecily. "Ideally one should have a name for everyday, and one for best company."
"But if that bracelet is indeed a gift from me, Gwendolen," said Mr Moncrieff, "should it not say 'your affectionate husband'?"
"It is not a very stylish bracelet," Gwendolen pointed out. "I expect you gave it to me many years ago, as a love-token. Everyone knows it is a perfectly natural and desirable thing to marry one's cousin. We may have been destined for one another from the cradle!"
"Oh, how perfectly romantic," said Cecily. "My darling John -- but no, John must be your company name! I am your beloved wife. I am sure I call you Jack."
"That's all very well, but if I am not Ernest Moncrieff, or any sort of Moncrieff at all, then why am I wearing one of your shirts, Algy?"
"Jack, my dear fellow, have you considered that perhaps I lent you a shirt, out of the goodness of my heart, when you found yourself at my house and in need of one?"
"What on earth would I be doing at your house without a shirt?" demanded Jack.
"A rainstorm -- an inconvenient incident involving mustard --"
"Actually," said Cecily, "there's a short piece of fiction in my diary that would seem to answer that question."
Gwendolen moved closer and read the page in question, her slender eyebrows climbing high on her forehead. "How very scandalous," she said seriously.
"Yes, indeed. I appear to have quite the depraved imagination for one so young and so pretty. I would not be surprised if I earned my own living through the writing of smutty novels -- under a nom de plume, of course. Mrs Cecily Worthing would never have her name associated with such things."
"Or perhaps," said Gwendolen, "we have two of those very modern marriages, and we selflessly avert our eyes while our husbands pursue their Forbidden Desires."
Cecily ran one finger beneath the most scandalous of all the sentences in her diary, and then raised a face of contemplation towards the two gentlemen.
"I do not feel," she said, slowly, "that we have been truly scientific in our assessment."
Gwendolen nodded and assumed a martyred expression as she gestured Algy to step closer to Jack.
"Remember to be objective," she instructed.
"And thorough," said Cecily.
"Er," said Jack.
"For science!" declared Algy, and kissed him.
It cannot be said that either of the two ladies showed the least inclination to avert their eyes. Neither can it be said that Jack and Algy, having embarked upon this experiment, showed any sign of stinting on thoroughness.
Indeed, they only drew apart when one of the two luncheon-baskets perched at the edge of the blanket -- the one not favoured by the inquisitive ants -- rudely interrupted the proceedings by emitting a loud gurgle.
"What was that?" asked Algy.
"Someone's stomach?" suggested Jack, not sounding as though he believed himself.
"A baby!" gasped Cecily, who had taken it upon herself to investigate. She abandoned her diary in the grass and tugged the muslin cover further off the basket. Another curious, contented gurgle emerged.
With great care and a certain amount of gingerness, Cecily lifted the basket by its handle and moved it into the centre of the blanket. She and Gwendolen stood on either side; Jack coughed meaningfully at Algy, who was touching his own lips with an expression as bright and glazed as a Christmas ham, and the two of them moved to inspect the infant as well.
It was a nondescript sort of baby, with sleepy eyes and a head of brownish hair, and determined chubby little limbs. As they watched, it gave an enormous yawn, followed by another satisfied burbling sound.
"Oh," said Cecily, in enchanted tones. "What a darling child! I declare, this fondness I am feeling now can only be a mother's love."
"I, too, am feeling decidedly maternal," said Gwendolen. Her face was soft, but her tones were more combative than enchanted.
An awkward pause descended upon the tableau, which now had less of the Shakespearean fantasy about it and was veering unsettlingly toward the Nativity.
After a moment, Cecily stepped close and twined her arms around Gwendolen's neck with a placating smile.
"Perhaps our marriages are very modern indeed! And we are raising this child with two mothers, and two fathers."
Gwendolen flushed at the proximity, but did not move away. "That seems an extravagant number of parents," she said, her mouth drifting down towards Cecily's. "The poor child is no doubt excessively spoiled."
This new experiment was embarked upon with every sign of enjoyment. Before long Cecily was clutching vaguely at the lace collar of Gwendolen's dress, apparently having trouble keeping her balance without it, and Gwendolen was displaying a tendency to make small, astonished sounds of pleasure.
"Ahem. Yes," said Jack, when the two ladies finally broke apart. He shifted his weight awkwardly from one foot to another. "I'm very glad we seem to have such a blissfully universal accord, but it does mean that we are no closer to figuring out the exact nature of the relations between us all."
"I call it exciting," said Algy. "The very essence of romance is uncertainty."
Gwendolen frowned. "Still, it is a little alarming, is it not? One always thinks that one should know one's own true love instinctively."
"Well then," said Cecily, "my instincts must be very selfish, because they are telling me that there is nothing to choose between you all! You are quite the loveliest set of true loves a girl could ask for."
She pressed her fingers to her cheeks, quite sincerely overcome, and both Gwendolen and Jack extended comforting hands to her shoulders.
That was when the baby, momentarily forgotten at their feet, emitted a most un-Christchild-like smell and began to wail thinly.
The two women gazed down upon the child once more.
"Actually, my dearest Cecily, I am convinced you are right. You have much more of the maternal air about you."
"Oh, no, Gwendolen! Now that I examine my heart properly, I am not at all sure that what I am feeling is a motherly love."
"It may not be our baby at all," put in Jack. "Whoever heard of carrying a baby around in a luncheon basket? It is not at all refined. And think of the potential for confusion -- especially on a picnic!"
"As much as I love one -- and, possibly, all -- of you, you are being perfect children about this," said Algy. "Someone must take responsibility." He stepped forward with a martial air and lifted the baby out of the basket.
The baby held off wailing for long enough to gaze with a certain dubiousness into the face of this erstwhile figure of parental nobility. Then it screwed its adorable features into a mess of pale creases not unlike a crumpled handkerchief, and embarked upon outright screaming.
"Then again," Algy said promptly, and extended it, elbows locked, in Jack's direction.
Jack looked both Algy and baby up and down. "What on earth makes you think I am qualified to -- oh, here, you are perfectly useless. It's not a sack of flour, to be dangled so."
"My dear chap, what makes you think I have any experience holding sacks of flour?"
The child's screams reached an ear-piercing crescendo as it passed into Jack's hands, but almost at once began to settle into sniffling hiccups.
"There," said Cecily, with some uncertainty. "It just needed a firm hand, my love."
"Hmm," Jack said. He bent, carefully, and set the baby down on the blanket.
It was an old enough baby that it balanced quite easily in a sitting position, and immediately reached out for Jack's shoelaces, casting a wet, blue-eyed gaze up at him as it did so. They all fell silent and watched the baby, which presently gathered itself onto hands and knees and set off across the blanket at a sudden crawl.
"Goodness," said Cecily, as the baby progressed across the grass. "Should a baby be able to move that quickly? It seems quite unsafe."
As none of the party showed much inclination to chase after the deceptively swift infant, it soon reached the edge of the clearing. There it once again sat down and reached out for the nearest interesting object, which turned out to be a large mushroom.
Once this was noted, it became obvious to the ladies and gentlemen that the clearing was in fact beringed by these fungi, and the infant was snatching one up by the stalk, breaking the circle --
The sun continued to shine. Insects continued to buzz.
Despite this, the most awkward pause of the afternoon settled down upon the party, like a heavy raincloud that has no intention of moving on until the garden has gone swampish with damp.
"Oh!" said Gwendolen presently. "Lizzie, you monster, don't eat it." She gathered her skirts and dashed to slap a handful of enchanted mushroom away from where Miss Elizabeth Moncrieff, with an air of proper scientific enquiry that could hardly be faulted, was about to stuff it into her toothless mouth.
"A fairy ring which removes one's memory," said Cecily. "How diverting. I shall have to record this incident in my diary."
Whereupon she appeared to recall some of the incident's finer details, and blushed, and the awkward pause continued to reign.
After a short while, Mr Ernest Moncrieff -- previously, and still affectionately, known as Jack Worthing -- cleared his throat.
"Algy," he said, in tones of great affrontery, "why are you wearing my shirt?"
"Oh, this?" replied Algernon, his face lightening with relief as he plucked at his own sleeve.
"That is quite simple. I stole it."
"I was merely doing you a favour. This is an awful shirt; I cannot think what possessed you to have it made up. It makes you look quite bilious."
"But you are wearing it!"
"My dear fellow, that is an entirely different matter. It looks very dashing on me."
This fond argument continued as Gwendolen, her daughter now firmly installed upon one hip, slid her other arm through Cecily's with a thoughtful expression.
"My dear Cecily," she said. "I must admit myself far out-classed, or rather out-read, when it comes to the Modern Marriage. Can you recommend any pamphlets to which I might apply myself? Or do you think we might -- speak further on the subject, when we return to London?"
Cecily leaned her golden head sideways until it rested on the other's lace-clad shoulder, and together they watched as Algy ducked away from his brother's irate attempts to seize hold of his favourite amber cufflinks in recompense for, as he put it, the shameless lully-prigging that Algy had displayed by the theft of his shirt.
An impish smile danced across Cecily's fair face.
"I'm sure we can come to some arrangement," she said.