Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 1

The room was long and lofty, a room of scarlet hangings and pale brown stone, unilluminated as yet by any of its red-shaded electric lights. There were two great Italianate fire-places with projecting canopies of carved stone; in one, the olive logs were unlit, in the other the fire, newly begun, burnt and crackled cheerfully; its leaping tongues of flame rejoiced and welcomed the evening. Bare expanses of the beeswaxed floor, sharp edges of the massive furniture, metallic studs and rods and handles and a big inkstand of brass responded by a gay waving of reflections to these glad Hallos. The curtains were not drawn, and the outer world by contrast with this intimate ruddy tumult seemed very cold and still and remote. The tall window at one end gave upon the famous garden which rose steeply behind the house, terrace above terrace, a garden half phantasmal now in the twilight, with masses of pallid blossom foaming over old walls, with winding steps, mighty old jars, great dark trees happily placed, and a profusion of flowers, halted and paraded, by the battalion, by the phalanx, their colours still glowing, but seen beneath deeps of submerging blue, unsubstantial and mysteriously profound as they dissolved away into the gloaming. The other window stared out at the unruffled Mediterranean, dark ultramarine under the fading afterglow of a serene sunset.

A small, fragile, dark-haired woman in a green dress crouched musing in one corner of the long sofa before the fire; her hands clutched the back and her cheek rested on her hands; the reflections danced upon her necklace and bracelet and earrings and the buckles of her shoes, caressed her pretty arms and lit her eyes. Her expression was one of tranquil contentment. In that big room she was like some minute bright insect in the corolla of a gigantic red and orange flower.

At the sound of footsteps in the passage without she sighed, and moving lazily, turned an expectant face to the open door behind her.

There appeared a very exquisite little gentleman of some sixty-odd years. Grey hair streaked with brown flowed back gracefully from a finely modelled face that ended in a neatly pointed beard. The complexion was warm and delicate. At the first glance you would have said he is Spanish and he is wax; and he was neither. But indeed it was as though a Velasquez portrait had left its proper costume upstairs and dressed for dinner. For a moment this pleasant apparition stood clasping its white hands with a sort of confident diffidence, and then came forward with an easy gesture. “Ah-ah! My hostess!” he said.

She held out her hand to him with an indolent smile and did not seem in the least surprised that he took it and kissed it.

“Come and sit down by the fire here,” she said. “I am so glad you have come to us again, Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan. Did they look after you carefully? We got back from Monte Carlo scarcely half an hour ago.”

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan strolled round the sofa, held out his carefully cherished hands to the blaze, and decided after due consideration to stand rather droopingly by the fireside. “You are sure I am not inconvenient?”

“You just complete us. There was one room free.”

“That pretty room in the tower. Every way, east, west, north and south one has a view.”

She did not explain that dear accommodating Miss Fenimore had been bustled up to the dependence when his telegram came. She had other things in her mind. “You arrived in the afternoon?”

“I lunched on the train. I hired an irresistible automobile at the station. It was painted aluminium colour and adorned with a banner bearing the mystical word ‘Shell.’ And such a courteously exorbitant driver! Although it was sight-seeing day for your gardens and the road at your gates was choked with cars and chars-a-bancs, all your servants, even the porter lady, received me as though I was the one thing they needed to round off their happiness. Your major-domo almost fondled me. Yes, Bombaccio with the Caruso profile. Yours is the perfect household.”

“You have seen none of your fellow guests?”

He reflected. “I have a slight suspicion —— Formally, no. Your major-domo gave me tea in my own room and afterwards I strolled about your gardens and heard them praised in most European languages as well as my mother tongue. One or two Germans. I may be old-fashioned but I don’t feel a European show-place is complete without an occasional ‘prachtvoll’ or ‘wie schön!’ I’ve a sneaking pleasure in their return. I feel I may be bullied for it but I can’t help having it.”

His hostess made no attempt to bully him.

He became enthusiastic over some flower in blue spikes, that was new to him.

The lady on the sofa disregarded the blue spikes. “There were one or two people about,” she reflected aloud. “There was Lady Grieswold. She won’t go to Monte Carlo because she loses her head. And always afterwards she is sorry she didn’t go to Monte Carlo because it might have been one of her good days. Did you see her? But probably she went for a walk up in the hills with Miss Fenimore, to avoid Mr. Sempack. And then there was Mr. Sempack.”

“Sempack,” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan. “Sem-pack?” and consulted his toes.

“Yes,” said the lady with a sudden hopefulness in her manner, “Mr. Sempack?” Her eyes were less dreamy. She wanted to know.

“In some connection ——”

“Yes. But in what connection?”

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan went off at a tangent. “As I have walked about the gardens —— A presence . . . Most of your sight-seeing visitors are transitory; they make a round and they go. Or they make two rounds and go. But there has been one individual ——”

The lady thrust out her pretty profile in expectation.

“Rather like a dissenting minister,” he tried, feeling his way. “With that sort of hat. And yet not a real dissenting minister, not one of God’s dissenting ministers.”

Her eager face assured him he was on the right track.

“A dissenting minister, let us say, neither born nor created, not a natural product, but —— how shall I put it? — painted by Augustus John! Very fine but slightly incredible. Legs — endless legs and arms. I mean as to length. Tree-like.”

He considered judicially. “More ungainly — yes, even more ungainly — than Robert Cecil.”

“Yes,” she said in a loud whisper and glanced guiltily over her shoulder at the open door behind her. “Him!”

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan folded his arms and bit a knuckle. “So that is Mr. Sempack! I saw him. Several times. We kept on meeting. The more we tried not to meet, we met. We sat about in remote corners and even then fate seemed to draw us together. Sempack!”

“You know about him?”

“I’ve heard of the great Mr. Sempack, yes.”

“He writes books,” she supplied helpfully.

Real books, dear lady. Not books you read. Not novels. Not memoirs. Books that are just books. Like Santayana. Or Lowes Dickinson. Or Bertrand Russell.”

“You’ve read some?”

“No. I’ve always hoped to meet him and save myself that duty. It is a duty. They say —— They say he talks better than he writes. How did he come here?”

“Philip met him. He brought him along from the Roquebrune people.”

“Why?”

“Philip wanted to know if there was going to be a coal strike. He’s fussed about the coal strike.”

“Did Mr. Sempack tell him?”

“Philip hasn’t asked. Yet.”

“I don’t think that’s Sempack’s sort of subject, but one never knows. He might throw some side-lights on the matter.”

“So far,” said the lady, with reflective eyes on the fire, “he hasn’t been very much of a talker. In fact —— He hardly talks at all.”

“Not his reputation.”

“Intelligently out of it.”

“Something not quite conducive in the atmosphere.”

“He seemed almost to be beginning once or twice. But — perhaps they interrupt. He sits about in the garden in that large dispersed way of his, saying he’s perfectly happy and refusing to go anywhere. Sometimes he writes in a little notebook. I don’t think he’s unhappy but he seems rather a waste.”

“You’d like him to talk?”

“We never do get any talk here. I’d love to hear — discussion.”

“Now I wonder,” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan and consulted his ring again. “What did I see, the other day?” He stuck up a finger and held it out towards her. “Utopias!” he said. “Quite lately. It must have been in some review. Quite recently. In the Nation I think. Or the Literary Supplement. Yes, I have it. He has been reading and writing about all the Utopias in the world. He’s a Utopographer!”

The lady seemed to weigh the possible meanings of the word. “But what has that to do with the coal strike?”

“Nothing whatever that I can see.”

There was a momentary pause. “Philip jumps at things,” she remarked.

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan knitted his brows. “Utopographer? Or was it a Utopologist? Or Utopolitan? Not a bad word, Utopolitan. No — it was Utopographer. I read it in one of the weeklies downstairs, the Spectator or the Nation or the Saturday. We might lead the talk rather carelessly towards Utopias and see what happened.”

“We have some awful interrupters here. They don’t listen and suddenly they shout out something about something else. Something — just silly. It may put him off his subject.”

“Then we must pull the talk back to the subject.”

You may. But he’s difficult. He’s difficult. They disregard him and he seems to disregard them and effaces everything from his mind. When they interrupt he just loses them in thought and the meal. But he’s not unhappy. He likes being here. He says so. He likes Philip. He likes Catherine. It is quite evident he likes Catherine. I think he has been talking to Catherine a little — in the garden.”

“Is Lady Catherine here?”

“Lovelier than ever. Her divorce has made her ten years younger. She’s twenty-five. She’s eighteen. And — it’s funny — but she evidently finds something attractive about Mr. Sempack. And naturally he finds something attractive about her. He isn’t at all the sort of man I should have expected her to find attractive. But of course if she goes and carries him off and makes him talk about his Utopias or whatever they do talk about when she gets him alone, there will be no getting him to talk at large. He’ll be drained.”

Her consultant quite saw that.

“We must think of a plan of campaign,” he brooded. “Broaching the talker. As a dinner table sport. Now what have we given? An interest in Utopias. I don’t think we must use the actual word, ‘Utopia’ . . . No . . . I wonder if I should find that review downstairs.”

From far away came the sound of high heels clicking on a marble staircase. His hostess became very rapid. “That’s Catherine!” she said in parenthesis. “The other people.” She ticked the names off on her fingers ineffectively. “There’s a Colonel Bullace. A great admirer of Joynson-Hicks. He wants to organise British Fascists. Keep the working man down and save him from agitators and all that. Adores Mussolini. His wife’s a darling. Rather a prosy darling if you let her talk, but endlessly kind. Then there’s a couple of tennis-players. They just play tennis. And improve Philip’s game. It tries him dreadfully having his game improved, but he will do it. What a passionate game tennis is nowadays, isn’t it? Mathison’s the name. And Geoffry Rylands is here — Philip’s brother. A foursome. Too good for any of the others. And there’s dear Miss Fenimore. Lady Grieswold I told you. And young Lord and Lady Tamar. He’s at Geneva, doing things for the League of Nations. Such a fine earnest young couple. Oh! and there’s Puppy Clarges and someone else — let me see . . . I said the Bullaces, didn’t I? . . . ”

The clicking heels halted in the doorway.

“Lady Catherine!” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan.

A tall young woman, with a lovely body sheathed in pale gold, dusky-haired, dark-blue eyed, smiled at them both. She had a very engaging smile, impudent, friendly, disarming. Her wide gaze swept the great room.

“Isn’t Mr. Sempack down?” she asked her hostess.

And then remembering her manners she advanced to greet Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan.

“Come and conspire with us, Catherine,” said Mrs. Rylands after a little pause for reflection. “Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan says Mr. Sempack is a great talker. So far — except perhaps to you — he’s buried his talent. Come and tell us how we are to get him talking to-night.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30