Translating Henry Higgins

By Laura Schiller

Based on: My Fair Lady

Copyright: Alan Jay Lerner

"MOTHER!"

Summoned by the stentorian tones of her forty-year-old son, Mrs. Higgins glided into the parlor to find him. Henry was standing by the swinging doors that led to the greenhouse, his head turning from side to side; in his brown coat, he reminded her of a lost sparrow, and not at all the man who had just been shouting the roof down.

"She's gone," he said.

"Well, of course, dear. What did you expect?" Mrs. Higgins replied with some asperity, torn between feeling sorry for him and wanting to cuff him over the head.

"But what am I to do?"

She shrugged. "Do without, I suppose."

A hard look came into Henry's eyes. He stiffened his spine, raised his chin, and drew arrogance and superiority around him like a cloak.

"And so I shall. If the Higgins oxygen burns up her little lungs, let her find some stuffiness that suits her! I have my own soul! My own spark of divine fire!"

And with a flourish of his hand, he made his exit.

Mrs. Higgins shook her head as she watched him leave. "Bravo, Eliza," she said to herself.

The first thing Eliza said, as Mrs. Higgins peered into her elegant guest-room, was, "Is he gone?"

"Yes, dear, you can come out now."

Eliza wiped her eyes with a scarlet handkerchief, looked down at it with a sudden grimace (only Henry would be so eccentric as to use red for a handkerchief, thought Mrs. Higgins) and tossed it onto the bed where she was sitting.

"I'm much obliged to you for your hospitality, Mrs. Higgins," said the younger woman bitterly, "But I shall try not to trespass on it for much longer. I – I'm getting married, you see. To Freddy Eynsford-Hill."

Mrs. Higgins' first impulse was to smile and congratulate Eliza, but on taking a second look, she knew better. A happy betrothed announcing her engagement would never have eyes like that – the eyes of a prisoner being led to the firing squad.

"Are you sure that's what you want, dear?" she asked, sitting down beside Eliza on the pink satin bedspread.

Eliza shrugged, affecting a careless air. "Well, as your son tells me – if I can't appreciate what I've got, I'd better get what I can appreciate."

It was all the answer Mrs. Higgins needed.

"My son," she said succinctly, "Is a fool."

Eliza's head snapped around.

"It's true. He's just like his father; he can talk you to death, but he hasn't the faintest idea of how to communicate. You don't need a phoneticist anymore; you need a translator. Do you know what he said to me just now?"

"No, what?"

"He proclaimed emphatically that he could get along without you, that his soul was his own. Which, knowing Henry, means precisely the opposite."

Eliza drew her black eyebrows together in puzzlement, even as her cheeks turned almost as pink as her gown.

"Mrs. Higgins, I … I don't understand … "

"You, Eliza, have done what no other woman alive has ever managed to do: get under Henry's skin, and quite thoroughly at that. Surely you must have noticed, while living under his roof for six months, that all his blustering is nothing but a shield to hide behind?"

"No, ma'am," said Eliza ruefully, "I was mostly busy plotting revenge in my mind for all the things he said. And I already know I've got under his skin; he was so damned – excuse me – so grateful to be rid of me."

Mrs. Higgins laughed and shook her head. Plotting revenge, indeed. Those two were really far too much alike.

"Swear all you like, dear. I've lived with Henry too long to be shocked by anything. What I meant was this: Henry loves you."

A derisive "Garn!" popped out of Eliza's mouth before she could stop it. She covered her lips with two gloved hands and turned away, blushing furiously.

"Think about it. Didn't he come here expressly to get you back?"

"To get his coffee and fetch his slippers for him, that's all."

"He's got Mrs. Pearce for that. No, my dear. Believe it or not, what he wants is you."

Eliza found herself leaning forward, hanging on the older lady's every word despite all the protests of common sense. Mrs. Higgins was his mother, after all … she ought to know … her hope was almost painful in its intensity, for the fear of being crushed again.

She remembered telling the Professor that, if he happened to miss her, he could always turn on the phonograph and listen to her voice. He had stared into the distance and said, in that unusually gentle tone which she would once have walked through fire to hear: I can't turn your soul on.

What did he care about her soul? Hadn't he been running roughshod over it since the day they met?

I, hit you? You infamous creature, how dare you suggest such a thing? It's you who've hit me, you've … wounded me to the heart.

She couldn't count the occasions when, swamped with A's and H's, sleep-deprived and humiliated by epithets such as "baggage" and "guttersnipe", she had accused Henry of having no feeling heart. But he had, for all that.

Getting 'her own back' was not as sweet as she had imagined. It tasted like cardboard in her mouth.

"He wouldn't take me, ma'am," she said quietly, not daring to meet Mrs. Higgins' eyes. "Not after the row we've had. He's so choked with pride he'd throw me back in the gutter rather than admit he's wrong."

"Then you must do without him," said Mrs. Higgins. "Can you?"

Eliza remembered – the fights and the chocolates, the new gowns and etiquette lessons, the creative insults and even more creative revenge fantasies, and the shared laughter. She remembered the ring she had left on the fireplace, the diamonds she had insisted on giving back, the bitterness of her tears. She remembered dancing with Henry at the Embassy Ball in her sparkling cream-colored sheath gown, and before that, in the library the night she finally "got it". She could have danced all night in his arms.

She could have told Mrs. Higgins the exact moment she fell in love with Henry. It was the moment he gave her his ice pack, though his headache must have been as bad as hers, and spoke to her as one friend to another.

That's what you've set yourself out to conquer, Eliza. The majesty and grandeur of the English language … and conquer it you will.

Could she do without him? Minutes ago, she had proclaimed emphatically that she could. That her soul was her own. She had meant precisely the opposite.

That tirade of hers had been launched with one purpose: to make him angry enough to pierce that arrogant armor of his, to make him admit how he really felt, perhaps even beg her to come home. She should have known better. Henry Higgins did not beg.

By George, Eliza! I said I'd make a woman, and indeed I did! Five minutes ago, you were a millstone around my neck and now you're a tower of strength! A consort battleship! I like you this way.

She had responded with a frosty goodbye, perfectly enunciated according to his teachings. If the prospect of her absence made him so happy, let him go to … well … Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire!

Except that she wanted to be his consort battleship, more than anything in the world.

I can do bloody well without you …

"No," she said, with a sigh of resignation. "I can't."

Mrs. Higgins smiled in her most motherly way and patted Eliza's hand.

"Well, dear, in that case I think you'd better pack your bags."

When she returned to 27-A Wimpole Street, the front door was unlocked. There were no servants to greet her. The only sound in that whole large, empty bachelor's flat was the sound of her own voice on the phonograph; her old Cockney drawl at its finest.

"Well, 'ere Oi am, ready to pay, not askin' any favour, an' 'e treats me as if Oi was dirt! Oi know what lessons cost as well as you do, an' Oi'm ready to pay. So you won't get more'n a shillin'. Take it or leave it."

As she turned the corner to the library, half expecting Professor Higgins to meet her eyes with the same disdainful sneer he had been wearing when she first said that. Instead he was sitting in a chair, slumped forward, with his back to her. He hadn't even heard her coming in.

"It's almost irresistible," said the recorded Henry, in blatant contrast to the motionless man before her eyes. "She's so deliciously low … so horribly dirty … I'll take it. I'll make a duchess out of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe."

Eliza gathered her courage and put out her hand to halt the phonograph.

"Oi washed me face an' 'hands afore Oi come, Oi did," she drawled, quoting her former self – partly to break the ice, partly because it seemed appropriate after the phonograph.

Henry straightened slowly in his chair.

"Eliza … ?" he whispered.

In six months, she had grown accustomed to his voice. It almost made the day begin. His tersely elegant, bitingly sarcastic English voice, rising and falling with dramatic emphasis, sometimes seeming to shake the very walls when he lost his temper, had guided and supported her all the way. But Mrs. Higgins was right; before this day, Eliza had not been listening properly. She listened now.

He was saying her name in that tone, softer than satin. The one he had used when he told her she would conquer the English language; when he told her he could not record her soul. And when he covered his face with his hat and asked her where the devil his slippers were, she understood perfectly well what he meant.

I love you too, her eyes said as she drew closer.