Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 12

Downstairs an attenuated house party sat at dinner. The Mathisons and Geoffry Rylands had departed for Monte Carlo, moved and encouraged to do so by their host. Mr. Haulbowline had gone with them, making up his mind at the last moment when he realised that there might be no bridge in the evening. Unprotected by a bridge group he might have to be visible, audible and distinctive. And the Bullaces were away, dining with a dear old friend of the wife’s at Diano Marino, the widow of an army chaplain who had been killed and partially eaten, no doubt at Bolshevik instigation, by an ill-disposed panther in Bengal. To-morrow the Bullaces were going back to England. The coal situation in Britain was becoming more threatening every day and the chance of social disturbance greater. The Colonel felt that his place was in the field of danger there, and that at any moment his peculiar gifts might be in request for the taming of insurgent labour.

Miss Fenimore and Lady Grieswold were both present. In spite of some very suggestive talk from Lady Catherine their movements were uncertain. Lady Catherine had perhaps exaggerated the gravity of Mrs. Rylands’ health and her need for peace, and Miss Fenimore had felt not that she ought to go but that she ought to stay “in case someone was wanted.” Lady Grieswold held on firmly without any explanation, but Lady Catherine had reason for hoping that when it was manifest a bridge famine was inevitable her grip would relax. Though of course there was the possibility of a break away into patience. However that was to be seen.

The Tamars were due at Geneva in three days’ time and so Lady Catherine did nothing to dislodge them. They were very harmless; they had spent the day together in a long walk up the hills, had taken their lunch and she had done a water-colour sketch of the little chapel in the upper valley; they had returned just in time for dinner and heard of Mrs. Rylands’ collapse only in the drawing-room. They were quietly happy and tired and their sympathy was pleasantly free from any note of distress.

The table talk was for a time disconnected and desultory, with long pauses, and then it broke into a loose debate between Stoicism and Epicureanism, in which Mr. Sempack and Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan said nearly everything. Mr. Sempack started with a panegyric of the Stoic; it seemed to be there in his mind and it was almost as if he thought aloud. He addressed what he had to say away from Lady Catherine, markedly. His discourse seemed by its very nature to turn its back on her. Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan talked rather at Lady Catherine and Miss Fenimore, appealing to them for support by the direction of his head and smiles and gestures. The Tamars were mildly interested and ever and again at some of the flatter passages they smiled mysteriously at one another, as though, if they cared, they could put quite a different complexion on things. Philip was unaffectedly lost in thought. He did not pretend even to listen.

Lady Grieswold said little but became visibly uneasy as the discussion soared and refused to descend. She was wondering if the Tamars would like to play bridge and still more how she might give this very difficult conversation a turn that would enable her to suggest this. Perhaps they did not know how to play yet and might like to be shown — of course for quite nominal stakes. It was wonderful the things these intellectual people did not know. She never contrived to get her suggestion out for all her alertness and she went up to a bridgeless drawing-room and sat apart and felt she was a widow more acutely than she had done for many years, and retired quite early to bed showing, Lady Catherine noted with satisfaction, no disposition whatever for the consolations of the patience spread.

Mr. Sempack began in a pause, almost or altogether out of nothing. If anything could be regarded as releasing the topic its connexion was so remote that it vanished from the mind as soon as it had served its purpose. “It is remarkable,” he began, “how silently and steadily Stoicism returns to the world.”

“Stoicism!” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan and raised his fine eyebrows.

“Consolation without rewards or punishments, a pure worship of right and austerity. It came too soon into the world; it had to give place to Mithraism and Isis worship and the Christianities for two thousand years. Now— it returns to a world more prepared for it.”

“But does it return?” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan with a disarming smile.

Mr. Sempack pursued his own train of thought. “The simple consolations needed by life in an under-civilised world, the craving for exemplary punishments, rewards and compensations; those Christianity could give. And a substitutional love to make up for human unkindnesses — and failures of loyalty. . . . Not to be despised. By no means to be despised. . . . But in the cold light of to-day these consolations fade. In the cold clear light of our increasing knowledge. We cannot keep them even if we would. We strain to believe and we cannot do it. We are left terribly to the human affections in all their incompleteness — and behind them what remains for us? Endurance. The strength of our own souls.”

His voice sank so beautifully that for a moment or so Lady Catherine knew what it was to be wholly in love. What a great rock he was! What tranquil power there was in him! He divested himself of all beliefs and was not in the least afraid. He was withdrawing to his fastness from her. So far as he was able. He would not be able to do it, but it was magnificent how evidently he thought he could. Almost unconsciously she began to radiate herself at him and continued to do so for the rest of the evening whenever opportunity offered.

“But need it be Stoicism?” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan.

“What else?”

“For my part I do not feel Christianity is dead,” young Lord Tamar interpolated before Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan could reply. “Not in the least dead. It changes form but it lives.”

Lady Tamar nodded in confirmation. “It changes form,” she admitted.

Lady Grieswold made confirmatory noises, rather like the noises a very old judge might make in confirming a decision, and she took some more stuffed aubergine as if that act was in some way sacramental.

Mr. Sempack did not attend at once to these three confessions. He stared before him at the marble wall over Miss Fenimore’s head. He had an air of explaining something carefully to himself. “Christianity has prevailed,” he assured himself, “but indeed Christianity passes. Passes! — it has gone! It has littered the beaches of life with churches, cathedrals, shrines and crucifixes, prejudices and intolerances, like the sea-urchins and starfish and empty shells and lumps of stinging jelly upon the sands here after a tide. A tidal wave out of Egypt. And it has left a multitude of little wriggling theologians and confessors and apologists hopping and burrowing in the warm nutritious sand. But in the hearts of living men, what remains of it now? Doubtful scraps of Arianism. Phrases. Sentiments. Habits.”

He turned his large eye on Lady Tamar and took up her neglected remark. “If Christianity changes form, it becomes something else.”

Lord Tamar gave a little cough and spoke apologetically. ”Love,” said Lord Tamar, “remains. The spirit. Christianity is love. It is distinctively the religion of love. All the rest — is excrescence. There was no such religion before.”

Lady Tamar wanted to say “God is Love,” but her courage failed and so she blushed instead. Evidently both the Tamars felt their own remarks acutely.

“Christianity can only be a form of love,” said Mr. Sempack. “I doubt if it is that. And I doubt still more if anyone can argue that love is the highest thing in life. Is it? . . . Is it? . . . ” Lady Catherine watched him. Far over her head to things beyond, Mr. Sempack said, “No.” He developed his disavowals. “There are nobler things for the soul — the conquest of the limited self, for example, at heights and in visions and apprehensions altogether above passion. There are, I am convinced, great mountains above the little village of the affections, high and lonely places. There lies the Stoic domain. There we can camp and harbour. Stoicism, which was too great for the world when first it dawned upon men’s thoughts, comes back into life. Changed very little in essentials, but enlarged, because our vision of time and space has enlarged. It has returned so inevitably that it has returned imperceptibly. We have all become Stoics nowadays without knowing it. We have not been persuaded and convinced and converted; we just find ourselves there. We fall back by a sort of general necessity upon the dignity of renunciation and upon our subordination to a greater life. Perhaps we do not want to do it but we have to do it. What else can we do unless we play tricks with our intelligence and degrade ourselves to ‘acts of faith’? What gymnastics this century has seen since its beginning! We abandon the Christian exaggeration of the ego and its preposterous claims for an everlasting distinctiveness — perforce. We give up craving for individual recognition because we must. Loneliness. Perhaps. In a sense we are all increasingly alone. But then, since nowadays we are all increasingly something more and something less than ourselves, that loneliness is no longer overwhelming.”

This was in effect soliloquy. It may have been soundly reasoned but it had been difficult to follow. The desolate figure of little Mrs. Rylands was so vivid in his mind that he was still able to remain unresponsive to the glow he had evoked in Lady Catherine. He was talking neither to his hearers nor himself, but in imagination to that little lady upstairs against the disturbance of the lovely lady at the end of the table. He was making Cynthia his talisman against Catherine. By behaving like a wise man for Mrs. Rylands he might yet be able to arrest the deep warm currents about him and within him that were threatening to make a fool of him for Lady Catherine. The problem of that fine soul, so clear in its apprehensions and so fatally gentle in its will, flung so suddenly into a realisation of its immense unaided confrontation of the universe, was good enough to grip him. After he had written and sent her that letter he wanted to take it all back and begin all over again. Or to begin a second one and a longer. But the gong had arrested the latter impulse at the source and saved some of the material for this present allocution.

The rest of the dinner party were variously affected by his declarations. “But is one ever really alone?” asked Lord Tamar, carrying on the talk, and began to reflect upon what he was saying as he said it. What, asked a chilling voice within, what would stand by him in an ultimate isolation? If for example — but that was too horrible to think even. He glanced across the table at his wife and saw that she was longing to look at him in reply and could not do so. What stoicism, he asked himself, could help if that were stripped from him? But then, his warmer self hastened to interpolate, it could not be stripped from him because love makes things immortal! Yet what did that mean?

There came a silence. Miss Fenimore felt she had rarely enjoyed so deep and subtle a conversation. She did not understand a bit of it, but it swept her mind onward intoxicatingly. Her glasses flashed round the table for the next speaker.

This was Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan. He fingered the stem of his glass. “Now that,” he said, speaking slowly and thoughtfully, “is a point of view.”

Everyone else was relieved to find there was someone competent to take up Mr. Sempack. What Mr. Sempack had been talking about was a point of view. That was really very helpful. Attention, embodied particularly in Miss Fenimore, focused itself consciously on Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan.

“That,” Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan improved, “is a method of apprehension. I admit the decay of Christian certitude. It has gone. And I admit the dignity and greatness of the Stoic vision. Yes. But it is, after all, only one of several possible visions.” He paused and extended a fine index finger at Mr. Sempack. “Equally well you may look through the glass of another philosophy and see the world as a glad spectacle, as a winepress of sensation and happiness and sympathetic feeling and beautiful experiences. . . . ”

He was launched.

He lifted a glance to Lady Catherine. ”Loneliness is a fact,” he said; “yes. But loveliness also is a fact. Which fact do you care to make the most important, which shall be the focus of attention? You are free to choose, it seems to me, to go out of yourself if you will, rather than retreat to the innermost. Why take the loneliness of the soul rather than the loveliness of circumambient things?”

“Loneliness and Loveliness!” It was a long way from such silly talk to sound and sensible bridge, thought poor Lady Grieswold. People who had the sense to play bridge didn’t bother about such things. Awful stuff! And flouting Christianity too! Florence or Mentone? It would have to come to that. The nice people had gone.

“Against your Neo-Stoic,” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan, still using his finger a little, “I set the Neo-Epicurean. I set such an attitude to the universe that a man may lament that he knows no God to thank for the infinitude of delicious things and marvellous possibilities wrapped up in the fabric of life.”

And so forth. . . .

Thus was issue joined downstairs and a long rather rambling and cloudy discussion between Stoicism and Epicureanism began. Miss Fenimore followed it from first to last with an enraptured incomprehension, while Philip brooded on his secret preoccupations and Mrs. Rylands lay upstairs on her great bed, preparing the things she had to say when at last Philip should come to her.

It was an entirely inconclusive discussion. Except that Lady Catherine, converted it would seem on the spot, presently announced herself a Stoic, to Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan’s visible surprise and distress.

Now why should she do that?

“But my dear Lady!” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan.

“Life should be stern,” said Lady Catherine triumphantly. . . .

After a time Philip, regardless of his formal duties as a host, got up and very quietly slipped away.

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