Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 5

After the move upstairs, when all those members of the party who lived and were satisfied with the present, the Bullaces and the Mathisons and Geoffry and Lady Grieswold and Puppy and Mr. Haulbowline, had gone apart to their happiness in bridge, the talk about Mr. Sempack and his great world of peace, justice and splendid work to come, had turned chiefly on the quality of the obstacles and entanglements that still kept men back from that promised largeness of living. The persistence of his creative aim impressed Mrs. Rylands as heroic, but it was mingled with a patience that seemed to her almost inhuman.

“There is a time element in all these things,” said Mr. Sempack. “In one newspaper downstairs there was a report of the conference of some political organisation, I think the Independent Labour Party, and they had adopted as their ‘cry,’ so to speak, and with great enthusiasm, ‘Socialism in Our Time.’ The newspaper made a displayed head-line of it. What did they mean by that? Humbug? Something to catch the very young? Or a real proposal to change this competitive world into a communistic system, change its spirit, its intricate, undefined and often untraceable methods in twenty or thirty years? Face round against the trend of biology in that short time. Take nature and tradition by the throat and win at the first onset. A small group of ill-informed people. Fantastic! To believe in the possibility of change at that pace is as absurd as not to believe in change at all.”

A distant “Hear, Hear!” came from the bridge table.

Table, partner!” the voice of Lady Grieswold reproved.

Colonel Bullace made no further sign.

“Nevertheless all these changes are going to be made and they may be made much sooner — I am sure they will be made much sooner — than most of us suppose. Change in human affairs goes with an acceleration. . . . ”

He went on with this reasonableness of his that balanced so perplexingly between cold cruelty and heroic determination. The world was not ready yet for the achievement of its broader and greater changes. Knowledge had grown greatly, but it had to grow enormously and be enormously diffused before things could be handled on such a scale as would give a real world peace, a world system of economics, a universal disciplined and educated life. The recent progress of psychology had been very great, but it was still only beginning. Until it had gone further we could do no more than speculate and sketch the developments of the political life of mankind and of education and religious teaching that would usher in the new phase. There was a minimum of time needed for every advance in thought and knowledge. We might help and hurry on the process up to a certain limit, but there was that limit. Until that knowledge had been sought and beaten out, we were workers without tools, soldiers without weapons. Meanwhile ——

“Easy for us to sit here and be patient, but what of the miner, cramped and wet, in the dark and the foul air, faced with a lock-out in May?” said Philip.

“I can’t help him,” said Mr. Sempack serenely.

“Immediately,” said Philip.

“Heaven knows if I can ever help him. Why should I pretend? If he strikes I may send a little money, but that is hardly help. Why pretend? I am no use to him. Just as I couldn’t help if presently there came a wireless call — have you a wireless here?”

“In the kitchen,” said Mrs. Rylands. “They like the music.”

“To say that some shiploads of people were burning and sinking in the South Atlantic. No help is possible at this distance. Just as there is nothing that any of us can do for the hundreds of thousands of people who are at this present moment dying of cancer. It is no good thinking about such things.”

The landscape of Mr. Sempack’s face hardly altered. There may have been the ghost of a sigh in his voice. “It is no good getting excited by such things. It may even do harm.

“The disease of cancer will be banished from life by calm, unhurrying, persistent men and women, working, with every shiver of feeling controlled and suppressed, in hospitals and laboratories. And the motive that will conquer cancer will not be pity nor horror; it will be curiosity to know how and why.”

“And the desire for service,” said Lord Tamar.

“As the justification of that curiosity,” said Mr. Sempack, “but not as the motive. Pity never made a good doctor, love never made a good poet. Desire for service never made a discovery.”

“But that miner,” said Philip, and after his fashion left his sentence incomplete.

“The miner is cramped between the strata — in the world of ideas just as much as in the mine. We cannot go and lift the strata off him, suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye. He has his fight to fight with the mine-owner, who is as blind. In his fashion. Which is — physically at least — I admit — a more comfortable fashion.”

Philip’s troubled eyes rested for a moment on his pretty wife.

“The miners are finding life intolerable, the mine-owners are greedy not only for what they have but more; the younger Labour people want to confuse the issue by a general strike and a push for what they call the Social Revolution.”

“What exactly do they mean by that?” asked Lord Tamar.

“Nothing exactly. The Communists have persuaded themselves that social discontent is a creative driving force in itself. It isn’t. Indignation never made a good revolution, and I never heard of a dinner yet, well cooked by a starving cook. All that these troubles can do is to ease or increase the squeeze on the miners and diminish or increase the totally unnecessary tribute to the coal-owners — at the price of an uncertain amount of general disorganisation and waste. My own sympathies are with the miners and I tax my coal bill twenty-five per cent, and send it to them. But I cherish no delusions about that struggle. There is no solution in all that strife and passion. It is just a dog-fight. The minds of people have to be adjusted to new ideas before there is an end to this sweating of men in the darkness. People have to realise that winning coal is a public need and service, like the high road and the post office. A service that has to be paid for and taken care of. Everybody profits by cheap accessible coal. A coal-owner’s royalties are as antiquated as a toll gate. Some day it will be clear to everyone, as it is clear to any properly informed person now, that if the state paid all the costs of exploiting coal in the country and handed the stuff out at prices like — say ten shillings a ton, the stimulation of every sort of production would be so great, the increase, that is, on taxable wealth would be so great, as to yield a profit, a quite big profit, to the whole community. The miners would become a public force like the coastguards or the firemen. . . . ”

“You think that is possible?” asked Philip.

“I know. It’s plain. But it’s not plain to everyone. Facts and possibilities have to be realised. Imaginations have to be lit and kept lit. Certain obstructive wickednesses in all of us ——”

Mr. Sempack stopped. He never finished a sentence needlessly.

“But coal winning isn’t confined to its country of origin,” said Philip. “There is the export trade.”

“Which twists the question round completely,” said Lord Tamar.

“When you subsidise coal getting in England you subsidise industrial competition abroad,” said Philip.

“Exactly. While we still carry on the economic life of the world in these compartments and pigeon-holes we call sovereign states,” said Mr. Sempack, “we cannot handle any of these other issues. Nothing for it but makeshift and piecemeal.”

“Till the Millennium,” said Philip.

“Till the light grows brighter,” said Sempack and added meditatively: “It does grow brighter. Perhaps not from day to day, but from year to year.”

They went on to talk about the moral training that was needed if modern communities were to readjust their economic life to the greater and more unified methods that were everywhere offering themselves, and when they talked of that Mr. Sempack made the schools and colleges of to-day seem more provisional and evanescent even than our railways and factories. Beyond their translucent and fading forms, he evoked a vision of a wide, free and active life for all mankind. In the foreground, confusions, conflicts, wastes, follies, possible wars and destructions; on the slopes beyond, the promise and a little gathering band of the illuminated, who questioned, who analysed, who would presently plan and set new methods and teaching going. Nothing in the whole world was so important as the mental operations, the realisations and disseminations of these illuminated people, these creative originatory people who could not be hurried, but who might so easily be delayed, without whom, except for accident, nothing could be achieved. Where was the plain and solvent discussion needed to liberate minds from a thousand current obsessions and limitations? Where were the schools of the new time? They had not come yet. Where were the mighty armies of investigators? Nothing as yet but guerilla bands that wandered in the wilderness and happened upon this or that.

The self-discovery, the mutual discovery, of those who constituted this illuminated minority, became the main theme. They dawned. As yet they did but dawn upon themselves. They fought against nature within themselves and without. They fought against darkness without and within. Large phrases stuck out in Mrs. Rylands’ memories of this talk, like big crystals in a rock.

“The immense inattentions of mankind . . . ”

“Subconscious evasions and avoidances . . . ”

“Our alacrity for distractions . . . ”

“The disposition of the human mind to apprehend, to assent and then to disregard, to understand and yet flag and fail, before the bare thought of a translation into action . . . ”

“The terror of isolation because of our insecure gregariousness. We try to catch every epidemic of error for fear of singularity . . . ”

“Minds as wild as rabbits and as ready to go underground . . . ”

“When you want them to hunt in a pack,” Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan had assisted at this point. . . .

“The disposition of everything human to inflame and make a sore about a minor issue, that will presently kill all the wider interests concerned . . . ”

The great talk rambled on and all its later phases were haunted by the idea that embodies itself in that word “Meanwhile.” In the measure in which one saw life plainly the world ceased to be a home and became the mere site of a home. On which we camped. Unable as yet to live fully and completely.

Since nothing was in order, nothing was completely right. We lived provisionally. There was no just measure of economic worth; we had to live unjustly. Even if we did not rob, “findings keepings” was our motto. Did we consider ourselves overpaid, to whom could we repay? Were we to relinquish all it would vanish like a drop in the thirsty ocean of the underpaid and unproductive. We were justified in taking life as we found it; in return if we had ease and freedom we ought to do all that we could to increase knowledge and bring the great days of a common world-order nearer, a universal justice, the real civilisation, the consummating life, the days that would justify the Martyrdom of Man. In many matters we still did not know right from wrong. We did not so much live as discuss and err. The whole region of sexual relations, for example, was still a dark forest, unmapped; we blundered through it by instinct. We followed such tracks as we found and we could not tell if they had been made by men or brutes. We could not tell if they led to the open or roundabout to a lair. We followed them, or we distrusted them and struggled out of them through the thorns.

“But a glimpse now and then of a star!” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan — his best thing, he reflected, that evening.

“Or a firefly,” said Lady Catherine.

The psychologist, the physiologist, would clear that jungle in time. In time.

All sorts of beautiful and splendid things might happen in this world. (The large gaze of Mr. Sempack rested for a moment on Lady Catherine.) But they happened accidentally; you could not make a complete life of them. You could not take a life or a group of lives and give it a perfect existence, secluded and apart, in a blundering world. Man was a social creature and you could not be gods in Italy while there remained a single suffering cripple in China or Peru; you could not be a gentleman entirely, while a single underpaid miner cursed the coal he won for you. The nearest one could get to perfection in life now was to work for the greatness to come. And not trouble too much about one’s incidental blunders, one’s incidental falls from grace.

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

“Meanwhile,” echoed Lord Tamar.

Came that pause just before Mrs. Rylands asserted herself.

And then it was Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan had made his rather sad little summing-up; his sense of the gist of it all, given with his very formal and disciplined laugh, bright without being vulgar. “I perceive I have been meanwhiling all my life. Meanwhiling . . . Have I been living?” (Shrug of the shoulders and gesture of the hands.) “No, I have been meanwhiling away my time.”

And for once his own bright observation pierced back and searched and pricked himself. But it wasn’t real enough to end upon. Unsatisfactory.

“Eheu! fugaces!” he sighed, an indisputably elegant afterthought. Though something Greek would have been better. Or something a little less — familiar. But then people were so apt to miss the point if it was Greek or unhackneyed. And besides he had not on the spur of the moment been able to think of anything Greek and unhackneyed. Compromise always. Compromise. Meanwhile.

He became preoccupied and noted nothing of Mrs. Rylands’ remarkable good-night speech to Mr. Sempack.

For quite a long time he sat on his bed in his charming room in the tower before he began to undress, brooding in a state of quite unusual dissatisfaction upon himself, regardless of the beautiful views south, north, east and west of him, the coast and the mountains and the silhouetted trees. He liked to think of his existence as a very perfect and polished and finished thing indeed and he had been wounded by his own witticism about “meanwhiling away his life.” And this was entangled with another unpleasant and novel idea, that if one’s refinement was effective or even perceptible it couldn’t really be refinement. Some of these Europeans achieved a sort of accidentalness in their refinement. They left you in doubt about it. Should one go so far as to leave people in doubt about it? Was there such a thing as being aggressively refined?

Presently Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan stood up and regarded himself in his mirror, varying the point of view until at last he was ogling himself gravely over his shoulder. He stretched out his hands, his very remarkable white hands. Then he pirouetted right round until he came into his thoughtful attitude with his arms folded, as if consulting his diamond ring.

He was comparing himself with Mr. Sempack. He was struggling with the perplexing possibilities that there might be a profounder subtlety than he had hitherto suspected in the barest statement of fact and opinion, and a sort of style in a physical appearance that looked as though it had been shot out on a dump from a cart.

His discontent deepened. “Little humbug!” he said to the elegance in the mirror. Its expression remained unfriendly.

He touched brutality. “Little ass!” he said.

He turned from the mirror, sharply, and began to undress, methodically, after his manner.

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