Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 4

To many hearers the great talk that was set going in Casa Terragena by Mr. Sempack, would have seemed far less wonderful and original than it did to Mrs. Rylands and the group of young people with her that listened to him. For, after all, it was little more than a gathering together and a fitting together of the main creative suggestions for the regulation of human affairs that have accumulated so richly in the last few score years. It did not seem in the least wonderful to Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan, though he allowed it to interest and amuse him. Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan was quite sure he had heard it all before, but then, like most highly cultivated and Europeanised Americans, he had trained himself to feel in that way about everything, and to smile gently and to intimate it quietly, with a sort of conspicuous unobtrusiveness. He knew that the one thing forbidden to an American was to be naïve. An American to hold his own must not rest under that suspicion. He must never be naïve, never surprised, never earnest. Only by the most inflexible tortuosity, by the most persistent evasiveness, by an exquisite refinement sustained with iron resolution, and a cynicism that never fails to be essential, can he hope to establish his inaccessible remoteness from either Log Cabin or White House; and maintain his self-respect among the sophistication of Europe.

So Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan played the part of a not too urgently needed prompter to Mr. Sempack, helped him out discreetly, and ticked off his points as he made them with the air of one fully prepared for everything that came.

The ground effect of Mr. Sempack upon which all his other effects were built, was his large and unchallengeable intimation of the transitory and provisional nature of the institutions and customs and usages, the forms and appliances and resources amidst which he and his interlocutors were living. He not only had the quality of not really belonging to them himself and of reaching back before they existed and forward to when they would have gone, but he imposed the same quality of relative permanence upon the thoughts of his hearers. He had the quality less of being ephemeral than of sitting with his hearers and watching everything else go by.

The human mind discovered itself relatively immortal amidst evanescent things. This beautiful house became like a tent that would presently be folded up and taken away and the celebrated gardens like a great bouquet of flowers that had been brought from the ends of the earth, just to be looked at and to delight for a little while and then to die and be dispersed. The house was built about a Saracenic watchtower for its core; wherever its foundations had extended buried fragments of polished marble and busts and broken provincial statuary had recalled its Roman predecessor; but at the touch of Sempack these marble gods and emperors became no more than the litter of the last tenant, his torn photographs and out-of-date receipts. The Via Aurelia ran deeply through the grounds between high walls, and some one had set up, at a bridge where the gardens crossed this historical gully, a lettered-stone to recall that on this documented date or that, this emperor and that pope, Nicolo Machiavelli and Napoleon the First, had ridden past. These ghosts seemed scarcely remoter than the records of recent passages in the big leather-bound Visitors’ Book in the Hall, Mr. Gladstone and King Edward the Seventh, the Austrian Empress and Mr. Keir Hardie.

Occasionally tombstones that had stood beside the high road were unearthed by changes in the garden. One inscribed quite simply “Amoena Lucina,” just that and nothing more, was like a tender sigh that had scarcely passed away. Mrs. Rylands had set it up again in a little walled close of turf and purple flowers. People talked there of Lucina as though she might still hear.

Over everything hung a promise of further transformations, for the Italians had a grandiose scheme for reviving the half obliterated tracks of the Via Aurelia as a modern motoring road to continue the Grande Corniche. Everything passed here and everything went by; fashions of life and house and people and ideas; it seemed that they passed very swiftly indeed, when one measured time by a scale that would take in those half disinterred skeletons of Cro-Magnon men and Grimaldi men who lay, under careful glass casings now, in the great cave of the Rochers Rouges just visible from the dining-room windows. That great cave was still black with the ashes of prehistoric fires, as plain almost as the traces of yesterday’s picnic. Even the grisly sub-man with his rude flint-chipped stakes, was here a thing of overnight. His implements were scattered and left in the deeper layers of the silted cave, like the toys of a child that has recently been sent to bed. With a wave of his ample hand Mr. Sempack could allude to the whole span of the human story.

“Utopias, you say, deny the thing that is,” said Mr. Sempack. “Why, yesterday and to-morrow deny the thing that is!”

He made Mrs. Rylands feel like someone who wakes up completely in the compartment of an express train, which between sleeping and waking she had imagined to be a house.

Colonel Bullace had to hear that his dear British Empire had hardly lasted a lifetime. “Its substantial expansion came with the steamships,” said Mr. Sempack; “it is held together by the steamship. How much longer will the steamship endure?”

Before the steamship it was no more than the shrunken vestiges of the Empire of George III. Most of America was lost. Our rule in India was a trader’s dominion not a third of its present extent. Canada, the Cape were coast settlements.

Now Colonel Bullace was of that variety of Englishman which believes as an article of faith that the Union Jack has “braved a thousand years the battle and the breeze” since 1800. If anyone had told him that the stars and stripes was the older of the two flags he would have become homicidal. A steamship Empire! What of Nelson and our wooden walls? What of John Company? What of Raleigh? What of Agincourt? He had a momentary impulse to rise up and kill Mr. Sempack, but he was calling his hand, a rather difficult hand, just then and one must put first things first.

And while Mr. Sempack made respect for any established powerful thing seem the delusion of children still too immature to realise the reality of change, at the same time he brought the idea of the strangest and boldest innovations in the ways of human life within the range of immediately practicable things. In the past our kind had been hustled along by change: now it was being given the power to make its own changes. He did not preach the coming of the Great Age; he assumed it. He put it upon the sceptic to show why it should not arrive. He treated the advancement and extension of science as inevitable. As yet so few people do that. Science might be delayed in its progress or accelerated, but how could its process stop? And how could the fluctuating extravagances of human folly resist for ever the steady drive towards the realisations of that ever growing and ever strengthening body of elucidation? There was none of the prophetic visionary about the ungainly Mr. Sempack as he sat deep and low on the sofa. He made the others seem visionaries. Simply he asked them all to be reasonable.

For a time the talk had dealt with various main aspects of this Millennium which Mr. Sempack spoke of so serenely, as a probable and perhaps inevitable achievement for our distressed and confused species. He displayed a large and at times an almost exasperating patience. It was only yesterday, so to speak, that the idea of mankind controlling its own destiny had entered human thought. Were there Utopias before the days of Plato? Mr. Sempack did not know of any. And the idea of wilful and creative change was still a strange and inassimilable idea to most people. There were plenty of people who were no more capable of such an idea than a rabbit. His large grey eye had rested for a moment on Colonel Bullace and drifted pensively to the Mathisons.

“The problem is to deal with them,” Mrs. Rylands had reflected, following the indication of the large grey eye.

“They will all die,” said Lord Tamar.

“And plenty more get born,” said Philip, following his own thoughts to the exclusion of these present applications.

“You don’t consult the cat when you alter the house,” said Mr. Sempack.

“But is such concealment, exactly what one might call — democracy?” asked Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan in mock protest.

“You don’t even turn the cat out of the room when you discuss your alterations,” said Mr. Sempack, and dismissed democracy.

It was only nowadays that the plan before mankind was becoming sufficiently clear and complete for us to dream of any organised and deliberate effort to realise it. The early Utopias never pretended to be more than suggestions. Too often seasoned by the deprecatory laugh. But there had been immense liberations of the human imagination in the last two centuries. Our projects grew more and more courageous and comprehensive. Every intelligent man without some sort of kink was bound to believe a political world unity not only possible but desirable. Everyone who knew anything about such matters was moving towards the realisation that the world needed one sort of money and not many currencies, and would be infinitely richer and better if it was controlled as one economic system. These were new ideas, just as once the idea of circumnavigating the world had been a new idea, but they spread, they would pervade.

“But to materialise them?” said the young man from Geneva.

“That will come. The laboratory you work in is only the first of many. The League of Nations is the mere first sketch of a preliminary experiment.”

Lord Tamar betrayed a partisan solicitude for his League of Nations. He thought it was more than that.

Parliaments of Nations, said Mr. Sempack, offered no solution of the riddle of war. Every disagreement reopened the possibility of war. Every enduring peace in the world had been and would have to be a peace under one government. When people spoke of the Pax Romana and the Pax Britannica they meant one sovereignty. Every sovereignty implied an internal peace; every permanent peace a practical sovereignty. For the Pax Mundi there could be only one sovereignty. It was a little hard for people who had grown up under old traditions of nation and empire to realise that and to face its consequences; but there was always a new generation coming along, ready to take new ideas seriously. People were learning history in a new spirit and their political imaginations were being born again. The way might be long and difficult to that last Pax, but not so long and difficult as many people with their noses in their newspapers, supposed.

“If one could believe that,” sighed Lady Tamar.

Mr. Sempack left his politics and economics; his sure hope of the One World State and the One World Business floating benevolently in their mental skies; and talked of the reflection upon the individual life of a scientific order of human affairs. It was remarkable, he thought, how little people heeded the things that the medical and physiological and psychological sciences were saying to them. But these things came to them only through a haze of distortion, caricatured until they lost all practical significance, disguised as the foolish fancies of a race of oddly gifted eccentrics. There was a great gulf fixed between the scientific man and the ordinary man, the press. So that the generality had no suspicion of the releases from pain and fatigue, the accessions of strength, the control over this and that embarrassing function or entangling weakness, that science could afford even now.

Still less could it imagine the mines of power and freedom that these first hand-specimens foretold. Contemporary psychology, all unsuspected by the multitude, was preparing the ground for an education that would disentangle men from a great burthen of traditional and innate self deception; it was pointing the road to an ampler and finer social and political life. The moral atmosphere of the world, just as much as the population and hunger of the world, was a controllable thing — when men saw fit to control it. For a moment or so as Mr. Sempack talked, it seemed to Mrs. Rylands that the room was pervaded by presences, by tall, grave, friendly beings, by anticipatory ghosts of man to come, happy, wise and powerful. It was as if they were visiting the past at Casa Terragena as she had sometimes visited the sleeping bones in the caves at Rochers Rouges. Why had they come into the room? Was it because these friendly and interested visitants were the children of such thoughts as this great talk was bringing to life?

“There is no inexorable necessity for any sustained human unhappiness,” said Mr. Sempack; “none at all. There is no absolute reason whatever why every child born should not be born happily into a life of activity and interest and happiness. If there is, I have never heard of it. Tell me what it is.”

“Bombaccio,” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan, glancing over his shoulder to make sure that the servants were out of the room, “is a Catholic. He believes there was a Fall.”

“Do we?” asked Mr. Sempack.

Puppy Clarges made a furtive grimace over her cigarette at Geoffry, but the doctrine of the Fall went by default.

“But then,” asked Mrs. Bullace, “why isn’t everyone happy now?”

“Secondary reasons,” Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan asserted. “There may be no invincible barrier to an earthly Paradise, but still we have to find the way.”

“It takes a long time,” said Philip.

“Everything that is longer than a lifetime is a long time,” said Mr. Sempack. “But for all practical purposes, you must remember, so soon as we pass that limit, nothing is very much longer than anything else.”

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan, after an instant’s thought, agreed with that as warmly as if he had met a long lost friend, but at the first impact it reminded Mrs. Rylands rather unpleasantly of attempts to explain Einstein.

“It does not matter if it uses up six generations or six hundred,” Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan endorsed.

“Except to the generations,” said Philip.

“But who wants this world of prigs?” came the voice of Geoffry in revolt.

“I do for one,” said Mr. Sempack.

“It would bore me to death.”

“Lots of us are bored almost to violence by things as they are. More will be. Progress has always been a battle of the bored against the contented and the hopeless. If you like this world with its diseases and frustrations, its toil and blind cravings and unsatisfied wants, its endless quarrellings and its pointless tyrannies and cruelties, the pettiness of its present occupations in such grotesque contrast with the hard and frightful violence to which it is so plainly heading, if you like this world, I say, defend it. But I want to push it into the past as completely as I can and as fast as I can before it turns to horror. So I shall be against you. I am for progress. I believe in progress. Work for progress is the reallest thing in life to me. If some messenger came to me and said with absolute conviction to me, ‘This is all. It can never be any better,’ I would not go on living in it for another four and twenty hours.”

Geoffry seemed to have no retort ready. His face had assumed the mulish expression of a schoolboy being preached at. This fellow, confound him! had language. And splashed it about at dinner time! Long sentences! Bookish words! Philip might as well have let in a field preacher. Field Preacher, that’s what he was. That should be his name. Geoffry nodded his head as who should say, “We’ve heard all that,” and helped himself in a businesslike way to butter. A fellow must have butter whatever trash he has to hear. You wouldn’t have him wait until all the jawing was finished before he took butter.

“Not much to quarrel with to my mind,” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan, “in a world that can give us such a sunset as we had to-night. This spacious room. And all these lovely flowers.”

“But there will still be sunsets and flowers, in any sort of human world,” said Mr. Sempack.

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan was a little belated with his reply but it opened profound philosophical issues and he liked it and was content. “Against a background,” he said, “perhaps not dark enough to do them justice.”

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