Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 7

There was a waterless part of the gardens at Terragena that was called the Caatinga. Nobody knew why it had that name; there was no such word in Italian and whatever justifications old Rylands had for its use were long since forgotten. Possibly it was Spanish-American or a fragment from some Red Indian tongue. The Caatinga was a region of high brown rocky walls and ribs and buttresses and recesses and hard extensive flats of sunburnt stone, through which narrow winding paths and steps had been hewn from one display to another; one came into its reverberating midday heat through two cavernous arches of rock with a slope of streaming mesembryanthemum, fleshy or shrivelled, between them, and a multitude of agaves in thorny groups, of gigantic prickly pears in intricate contortions, of cactuses and echinocactus, thick jungles of spiky and leathery exotics, gave a strongly African quality to its shelves and plateau and ridges and theatre-like bays. Only the wide variety of the plants and an occasional label betrayed the artificiality of this crouching, malignantly defensive vegetation. “African,” said some visitors, but others, less travelled or more imaginative, said: “This might be in some other planet, in Mars or in the moon.” Or they said it looked like life among the rocks under the sea.

Some obscure sympathy with a scene that was at once as real as Charing Cross and as strange as a Utopia may have drawn Mr. Sempack to this region, away from the more familiar beauties and prettinesses of Casa Terragena. At any rate, he made it his resort; he spread out his loose person upon such rare stony seats as were to be found there and either basked meditatively or read or wrote in a little notebook, his soft black felt hat thrust back so that its brim was a halo.

And thither also, drawn by still obscurer forces, came Lady Catherine, slightly dressed in crêpe georgette and carrying an immense green-lined sun umbrella that had once belonged to the ancestral Rylands. She stood over Mr. Sempack like Venus in a semi-translucent mist. She spoke with a mingling of hostility and latent proprietorship in her manner. “You will either blister or boil if you sit up here to-day,” she said.

“I like it,” said Mr. Sempack without disputing her statement, or showing any disposition to rearrange himself.

She remained standing over him. She knew that her level-browed face, looked-up-to and a little fore-shortened, was at its bravest and most splendid. “We seem able to talk of nothing down here but the things you said the other night.”

Mr. Sempack considered this remark without emotion. “The Mathisons?”

“They never talk. They gibber sport and chewed Daily Mail. But the others ——”

“Mrs. Bullace?”

“She’s a little hostile to you. You don’t mind?”

“I like her. But still ——”

“She thinks you’ve set our minds working and she doesn’t like minds working. I suppose it’s because the Colonel’s makes such unpleasant noises when it works. She said —— How did she put it? That you had taken all the chez-nouziness out of Casa Terragena.”

“You made me talk.”

“I loved it.”

“I didn’t want to talk and disturb people.”

“I wanted you to.”

“I do go on, you know, when I’m started.”

“You do. And you did it so well that almost you persuaded me to be a Utopian. But I’ve been thinking it over.” The lady spoke lightly and paused, and only a sudden rotation of the large umbrella betrayed the deceptiveness of her apparent calm. “It’s nonsense you know. It’s all nonsense. I don’t believe a word of it, this spreading web of science of yours, that will grow and grow until all our little affairs are caught by it and put in place like flies.” She indicated a vast imaginary spider’s web with the extended fingers of her large fine hand. She threw out after the rest, “Geometrical,” a premeditated word that had somehow got itself left out of her premeditated speech. “You won’t alter human life like that.”

Mr. Sempack lifted one discursive eyebrow an inch or so and regarded her with a mixture of derision and admiration. “It won’t affect you much,” he said, “but life will alter as I have said.”

No,” said the lady firmly.

Mr. Sempack shrugged his face at the prickly pears.

Lady Catherine considered the locality and perched herself on a lump of rock so high that her legs extended straight in front of her. His note-making must stop for awhile. “It doesn’t matter in the least what is going to happen on the other side of time,” she said. “You make it seem to, but it doesn’t.”

“Things are happening now,” said Mr. Sempack.

Lady Catherine decided to ignore that. She had prepared certain observations while she had been dressing that morning and she meant to make them. She was not going to be deflected by unexpected replies. “As I thought it over the fallacy of all you said became plain to me. The fallacy of it. It became ridiculous. I saw that life is going to be what it has always been, competition, struggle, strong people seizing opportunities, honest people keeping faith, some people being loyal and brave and fine — and all that, and others mean and wicked. There will always be flags and kings and empires for people to be loyal to. Religion will always come back; we need it in our troubles. Life is always going to be an adventure. Always. For the brave. Nothing will change very much — in these permanent things. There will be only changes of fashion. What you said about people all becoming one was nonsense — becoming unified and forgetting themselves and even their own honour. I just woke up and saw it was nonsense.”

“You just lost your grip on what I had been saying,” said Mr. Sempack.

“It was an awakening.”

“It was a relapse.”

Lady Catherine reverted to her mental notes. “I shook it off. I looked at myself and I looked at the sunshine and I saw you had just been talking my world away. And leaving nothing in the place of it. I went downstairs and there on the terrace were those six Roman busts that have been dug up there, faces exactly like the faces of people one sees to-day, the silly one with the soft beard most of all, and I went out past that old tombstone, you know, the one with an inscription to the delightful Lucina, that Mrs. Rylands has just had put up again, and I thought of how there had been just such a party as we are, in the Roman villa that came before the Rylands. Perhaps Lucina was like Cynthia. I think she was. Very likely there was a Greek Sophist to anticipate you. All hairy and dogmatic but rather attractive. Talking wickedly about the Empire because he thought it really didn’t matter. And hundreds and hundreds of years ahead, somebody will still be living in this delightful spot and people will be making love and eating and playing and hearing the latest news and talking about how different everything will be in the days to come. Sur la Pierre Blanche. There will still be a good Bombaccio keeping the servants in order and little maids slipping out to make love to the garden-boys under the trees when the fireflies dance. And there you are!”

“There am I not,” said Mr. Sempack. “But there most evidently you are.”

He waved his dispersed limbs about for some seconds, it reminded her of the octopus in the Monaco Aquarium, collected them and came to a sitting position, facing her.

“Talking of sane things to you is like talking to a swan,” he said. “Or a bird of paradise.”

She smiled her most queenly at him and waited for more.

“You seem to understand language,” he said. “But unless it refers to you, in your world of acceptance and illusion, it means nothing to you at all.”

“You mean that my healthy mind, being a thoroughly healthy mind, rejects nonsense.”

“I admit its health. I regret its normality. But what it rejects is the unpalatable and the irrelevant. The truth is as irrelevant to you as a chemical balance to a butterfly.”

“And to you?”

“I am disposed to make myself relevant to the truth. It is my peculiarity.”

Lady Catherine had a giddy feeling that the talk was terribly high and intellectual. But she held on pluckily. “I don’t admit that your truth is the truth. I stick to my own convictions. I believe in the things that are, the human things.” She gathered herself for a great effort of expression. She let the umbrella decline until it lay upturned at her side, throwing up a green tone into her shadows. “I believe that the things that don’t matter, aren’t,” she announced triumphantly.

“Your world is flat?” he verified.

“It has its hills and valleys,” she corrected.

“But as for its being a globe?”

She took the point magnificently. “Mere words,” she said. “Just a complicated way of saying that you can keep on going west and get home without a return ticket.”

“An odd fact,” he helped her, “but not one to brood upon.”

“But you brood on things like that.”

“You have a philosophy.”

“Common sense.” And she restored the umbrella to its duty.

“Suppose the world is a ball,” she returned to the charge, “that doesn’t make it a pill that you can swallow. It doesn’t even make it a ball you can play football with. But you go about believing that because it is round, presently you will be able to trundle it about.”

“You have quite a good philosophy,” he said.

“It works — anyhow,” she retorted.

“I did not know that you ran your life on nearly such a good road-bed. I think —— I think your philosophy is as good as mine. So far as your present activities are concerned. I didn’t imagine you had thought it out to this extent.”

“I thought it out last night and this morning because your talk had bothered me.”

Mr. Sempack made no reply for some moments. He remained regarding her in silence with an expression on his face that she had seen before on other faces. And when he spoke, what he said was to begin with, similar to other speeches that had followed that expression in her previous experiences.

“I suppose that many people have told you that you are extraordinarily beautiful and young and proud and clever?”

She met his eyes with studied gravity, though she was really very much elated to have got this much from the great Mr. Sempack. “Shall I pretend I don’t think I’m good looking?” she asked.

“You are and you are full of life, happy in yourself, sure of yourself and of your power, through us, over your universe. Naturally your time is the present. Naturally you are wholly in the drama, and you don’t want even to think of the time before the curtain went up and still less of the time when the curtain will come down. You are Life, at the crest. Your philosophy expresses that. Your religion is just touching for luck and returning thanks. I wouldn’t alter your philosophy. But most of us are not like you. What is life for you is ‘Meanwhile’ for most of us.”

“There is too much meanwhile in the world,” said Lady Catherine after a moment’s reflection, and met his eyes more than ever.

“What would you have us do?”

“Believe as I do that things are here and now.”

Mr. Sempack’s eyes fell to her feet. His thoughts seemed to have sunken to great profundities. Still musing darkly he stood up and lifted his eyes to her face. “Well,” he said, with the shadow of a sigh in his voice; “here goes.”

And taking her by the elbow of the arm that held the umbrella and by the opposite shoulder, in his own extensive hands, he drew her into a standing position and kissed her very seriously and thoroughly on the mouth. She received his salutation with an almost imperceptible acquiescence. It was a very good serious kiss. He kissed her without either unseemly haste or excessive delay. But his body was quivering, which was as it should be. They stood close together for some moments while the kiss continued. His hands fell from her. Then, as if it explained everything, he said: “I wanted to do that.”

“And I hope you are satisfied?” she said with the laugh of one who protests astonishment.

“Not satisfied but — assuaged. Shall we sit down again? You will find it much more comfortable if you sit beside me here.”

“You are the most remarkable man I have ever met,” she said, and obeyed his suggestion.

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