Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 3

That evening had been tremendously entertaining, a glory, a thing to remember, but though the spirit may be extremely spirited the flesh is often weak.

At midnight Mrs. Rylands suddenly gave way. Right up to the moment of her crisis her attention had been held quite pleasantly, then suddenly it vanished. Abruptly she went like sour milk in thundery weather. Fatigue smote her and an overwhelming desire to close and put away the great talk and go to bed.

There was no phase of transition. It was like a clock striking suddenly on her brain. It said, “Enough. You have listened enough. You have looked intelligent enough. They have all had enough. Pack them off to bed and go to bed yourself.”

She sat up on one of the pedestals that stood on either side of the fire and nothing in her pensive and appreciative pose betrayed the swift change within her. A moment before she had been a happy hostess blessing her gathering. Now she waited like an assassin for the moment to strike, and all her soul was hostile. And they went on, Mr. Sempack talking, Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan talking, Catherine talking, the Tamars interested (unless she was pretending awfully well), Philip hanging on every word and Miss Fenimore drinking it in. They might go on for hours yet — hours!

Mrs. Rylands invented something. She invented it in an instant. It flashed into her mind completed and exact. She would have it made directly she got to London, and bring it back with her next winter. A solid looking brass clock to go with the big inkstand on the table. It should strike — just once in a day. Every twenty-four hours it should strike, slowly, impressively, imperatively — midnight. Never anything else. Midnight. Or perhaps to bring it home to them, fourteen or fifteen. Or four and twenty sound and full. The evening curfew. Why had no one thought of such clocks before? And sometimes one would put it on and sometimes one would put it back, and if it had a little stud somewhere that one could touch — or make Philip touch — without anyone else noticing it, one might prevent it striking. . . . Or just blow everything to bits by making it strike. . . .

In the natural course of things the bridge players started the go-to-bed break-up before half-past eleven, but to-night the bridge was bewitched it seemed. It made a background of muffled sounds to the great talk. Everyone was overcalling over there; that was quite plain; tempers were going to pieces; and the games were holding out obstinately beneath vast avalanches of penalties that impended above the line. Sounds of subdued quarrelling came from Mrs. Bullace and Lady Grieswold. Each had arrived at the stage of hatred for her partner. At the other table Geoffry was losing facetiously to the Mathisons, a close-playing couple, and Puppy was getting more and more acridly witty. Who was it sitting just hidden by the bowl of roses? Mr. Haulbowline, Mrs. Bullace’s partner. It was Mr. Haulbowline that Mrs. Rylands had forgotten when she had given the list of her guests to Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan. Why did one always forget Mr. Haulbowline?

The current of Mrs. Rylands’ thoughts was interrupted. Something she realised had taken her by the cheeks and throat, something she knew she must control at any cost, a tension of the muscles. Just in time she bit her finger and suppressed the yawn, and then with a stern effort brought her mind back to the great talk. Now it was Mr. Sempack who was talking, and it seemed to her he was talking as though the only person in the room was Lady Catherine. Was that imagination? It was remarkable how those two entirely incongruous people attracted each other. They certainly did attract each other. When Mr. Sempack looked at Lady Catherine his eyes positively glowed.

It was astonishing that any woman could be attracted by Mr. Sempack! He was so entirely different from Philip. It was wonderful how cleverly Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan had hit him off. Of course now that he was in evening dress he was not so much like a dissenting minister, but he was still incredibly gawky. It was clever of Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan to have thought of Lord Cecil. Mr. Sempack really was more gawky than Lord Cecil; much more. How Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan observed things! And how acute and intimate it was of him — since he was American — to call him Robert Cecil still. Gawky! Mr. Sempack was the gawkiest man she had ever looked at. He became monstrous as she scrutinised him. He became a black blot on the scene, that had the remotest resemblance to a human form. His joints made her think of a cow, just as Philip’s always made her think of a cat. It was awful to think how he could be joined together at the joints. Her pensive pose permitted her to examine his foot; his far-flung foot as he sat deep in the sofa. He had crossed his legs and his foot seemed to be held out for inspection. It waved about as if it challenged comment. His shoe reminded her of a cattle boat adapted to passenger service. His socks fell in folds over his ankle. Probably this man whom everyone was listening to as if he was an oracle, had never found out there were such things as sock suspenders in the world. An oracle who had never heard of sock suspenders! It was quite possible. Men were incredibly stupid — especially intellectual men — about everything of practical importance in the world. Even what they knew they couldn’t apply, whereas a woman could apply even what she didn’t know. . . . They didn’t know when to leave off. . . . Or, she suddenly amended, they left off too soon. Above the sock an inch of healthily hairy skin displayed itself and then a thin edge of Jaeger underclothing. Undyed, all-wool, slightly frayed underclothing. And Catherine found him attractive!

Very probably if Philip wasn’t looked after he’d —— No, it was impossible. He was like a different sort of animal. He would pull up his socks by instinct.

Mrs. Rylands, with an expression of intelligent attention, considered her guest’s face. No one could have guessed from her quiet eyes that her reason had fled and only an imp was left in possession.

His bones, this imp remarked, positively ran wild under his skin as he talked. What could one call such features? Rambling? Roughhewn? It was like a handsome face seen through a distorting mirror. It was like one of those cliffs where people find a resemblance to a face. There was a sort of strength, a massiveness. The chin. It was a hygienic chin; the sort of chin people wear so as to give fair play to every toe. . . .

Mrs. Rylands had a momentary feeling that she was falling asleep. What had she been thinking about? About his chin — chins and toes —— She meant his chin was like the toe of a sensible boot, not pointed. It was really a double chin. Not a downwards double, not fat, but a sideways double chin. “Cleft” did they call it? And the nose one might call shapely — different on each side, but shapely on each side. A nose with a lot of character — but difficult to follow. And big! Like the nose Mr. Gladstone grew in his late days. For people’s noses grow — longer and longer — all their lives. This nose — how would it end? Something thoughtful about those deep overhung eyes there was, and the wrinkles made them seem kindly and humorous. But why didn’t someone tell a man like that to get his eyebrows cut? There was no need to have such eyebrows, no need whatever. Unkempt. Sprouting. Bits of hair on his cheeks too. A face that ought to be weeded. She would not look at his ears — for fear. Some woman ought to take him in hand. But not Catherine! That would be Beauty and the Beast. How venturesome Catherine was! — had always been!

His voice was not unpleasant. Perhaps it was his voice that attracted Catherine.

He was saying: “Work. We have to work for the sake of the work and take happiness for the wild flower it is. Some day men will grow their happinesses in gardens, a great variety of beautiful happinesses, happinesses under glass, happinesses all the year round. Such things are not for us. They will come. Meanwhile ——”

“Meanwhile,” Lord Tamar echoed in a tone of edification. Just the word. He was really looking up at Mr. Sempack. He, too, was attracted. Lady Tamar’s emotional response also was very convincing.

But what were they talking about? Her garden? Happiness in little pots, happiness bedded out? Mrs. Rylands blinked to make sure she was awake.

Then came a pause and Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan delivered himself. “I perceive I have been meanwhiling all my life. Meanwhiling. . . . Have I been living? You make me question it. Have I just been meanwhiling away my life?”

He paused and seemed faintly dissatisfied with what he had said. “Eheu! fugaces,” he sighed.

It sounded awfully clever. And rather sad in a brilliant sort of way. But what it meant now, was another matter. She had lost the thread long ago. Bother! Mrs. Rylands roused herself to smile brightly at Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan. Anyhow, it was as if they were coming to some sort of conclusion and she felt she must offer him every encouragement. Then, with a sudden determination, she stood up. She could endure this talk no longer. After all, it was her house. The bridge parties far away down the room came to her aid, belatedly like Blücher, but now they came.

“Game!” shouted Puppy. “And the two hundred and fifty ought to save us from the worst of it. We’re well out of it, partner!”

A great stirring of chairs. Both bridge tables on the move. Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan also standing up. Lady Tamar standing up. Everyone on the move, thank God! Philip guiding Colonel Bullace quite needlessly to the drinks on the far table. Mr. Haulbowline following Colonel Bullace, unobtrusively but resolutely, like a pointer following a Scotch terrier. Suddenly the men remember that Puppy will take a whisky, Mr. Haulbowline stands aside and Colonel Bullace pours out her allowance with an air of having approached the tray for that sole purpose. The other tray? The other tray is all right. Geoffry is getting lemonade for Lady Catherine. . . .

Now was the moment for the hostess to say: “We have had a wonderful talk to-night, Mr. Sempack. You scatter ideas like a fir tree scatters pollen.”

She had thought of that in the interlude after dinner, while all the women were saying things about him. He did scatter ideas. She had said it over to herself several times since, to make sure it was still there. But what she said was: “You scatter pollen like a freeze scats ideese. I hope you will sleep well, Mr. Sempack, and not hear too much of the sea.”

She said her little sentence rather rapidly and mechanically, because she had repeated it over too often; she touched his knuckly hand and smiled her sweetest and left him bowing. In the passage she let her yawn loose and the happy thing nearly dislocated her pretty jaw.

It was only when she was undressing that she realised with a start what it was she had said. Never! But she was horribly certain about it. “Freeze scats ideese?” or had it been “Fleeze”? What could he have made of it? Perhaps now, with that vast serious expression of his on that vast serious face, he was repeating it over to himself upstairs.

It was hopeless even to try to make Philip understand what she was laughing at. So she just laughed and laughed, and then Philip lifted her up in his arms and kissed her and soothed her, and she cried a tear or so for no particular reason, Philip being such a dear, and then she was put into bed somehow and went to sleep.

And the last thing she heard was Philip reproaching himself. “I ought to have sent you to bed before, my little wife. You’ve tired your dear self out.”

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