Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 8

“I rarely do things of this sort,” said Mr. Sempack, as though he was saying that the weather was fine. He adjusted his hat, his respectable, almost clerical hat, which showed a disposition to retire from his brazen brow altogether.

“You are a really wonderful man,” said Lady Catherine, leaning towards him, and her expression was simple and sincere.

“You are a really wonderful man,” she repeated before he could reply, “and now I feel I can talk to you plainly. I have never met anyone for a long time who has impressed me as you have done. You are — an astonishing discovery.”

Mr. Sempack had half turned towards her so that they sat side by side and face to face with their glowing faces quite close together. It was extraordinary that a man who was so ungainly a week and a room’s breadth away should become quite attractive and exciting and with the nicest, warmest eyes at a distance of a few inches. But it was so. “It is rare,” he said, “that I come back so completely to the present as you have made me do.”

“Come back to the present and reality,” she urged. “For good. That is what I wanted to say to you. I have been watching you all these days and wondering about you. You are the most exciting thing here. Much the most exciting thing. You have a force and an effect. You have a tremendous effect of personality. I never met anyone with so much personality. And you go so straight for things. I know all the political people at home who matter in the least. And not one of them matters in the least. There is not one who has your quality of strength and conviction; not one. Why do you keep out of things? Instead of talking and writing of what is coming; why don’t you make it come?”

“Oh!” said Mr. Sempack and recoiled a little.

“You could dominate,” she said.

“I wasn’t thinking of politics or dominating just then,” he explained. “I was thinking of — you.”

“That’s thrown in. But there has to be a setting. You seem to be masterful and yet you decline to be masterful. I am excited by you and I want you masterful. I want to see you — mastering things. The world is waiting for confident and masterful men. See how Italy has snatched at Mussolini. See how everything at home waits for a decisive voice and a firm hand. It wants a man who is sure as you are sure to grip all this sedition and discontent and feeble mindedness. All parties the same. I’m not taking sides. Philip doesn’t seem to know his own mind for five minutes together. And he owns coal galore.”

Mr. Sempack had gradually turned from her during this speech. “Philip?” he questioned himself in a whisper. He drooped perceptibly.

His tone when he spoke was calmly elucidatory.

“When we were talking about those things the other night,” he remarked, “I did my best to explain just why it was that one could not do anything very much of a positive sort now. Perhaps what I said wasn’t clear. The thing that has to happen before anything real can crystallise out in the way of a new state of affairs is a great change in the ideas of people at large. That is the real job in hand at present. Reconstructing people’s ideas. To the best of my ability I am making my contribution to that now. I don’t see what else can be done.”

He was looking at her no longer. He gave her his profile. The glow seemed to have gone out of him.

“But that is not living,” she said, with a faint flavour of vexation in her voice. “Meanwhile you must have a life of your own, a life that hurts and excites.”

He regarded her gravely. “That I suppose is why I kissed you.”

She met his eyes and perceived that the glow had not vanished beyond recall.

“Live now — instead of all this theorising,” she whispered. “You are so strange a person —— You could make an extraordinary figure.”

He turned from her, pulled up a great knee with his long hands, slanted his head on one side, considered the proposition.

“You think”; he weighed it; “I should project myself upon the world, flapping and gesticulating, making a great noise. It wouldn’t you know be a lucid statement, but it would no doubt have an air. A prophetic raven. Something between Peter the Hermit, William Jennings Bryan and the great Mr. Gladstone on campaign? Leading people stupendously into unthought-of ditches. And leaving them.” He turned an eye on her and it occurred to her to ask herself, though she could not wait for the answer, whether he was laughing either at her or at himself. He shook his head slowly from side to side. “No,” he concluded.

“We have to learn from the men of science,” he supplemented, “that the way to be effective in life is to avoid being personally great — or any such glories and excitements.”

“But how can a woman enter into the life of a man who just sits about and thinks and tries it over in talk and writes it down?”

“My dear — you are my dear, you know — she can’t. But do you dream that some day you and I perhaps might ride together into a conquered city? Beauty and the Highbrow.”

“You could do great things.”

“After the election, our carriage, horses taken out, dragged by the shouting populace to the Parliament House.”

“You caricature.”

“Not so very much. You are, my dear, the loveliest thing alive. I can’t imagine anything more sweet and strong — and translucent. I am altogether in love with you. My blood runs through my veins, babbling about you and setting every part of me afire. You stir me like great music. You fill me with inappeasable regrets. But —— Between us there is a great gulf fixed. I live to create a world and you are the present triumph of created things.”

She said nothing but she willed herself to be magnetic and intoxicating.

Mr. Sempack however was carried past her siren radiations by the current of his thoughts.

“I doubt,” he reflected, “if life has very much more use for a perfect thing, for finished grace and beauty, than an artist has for his last year’s masterpiece. Life grows the glorious fruit — and parts from it. The essential fact about life is imperfection. Life that ceases to struggle away from whatever it is towards something that it isn’t, is ceasing to be life.”

“Just as if I were inactive!” she remarked.

“You’re splendidly active,” he said with a smile like sunlight breaking over rugged scenery: “but it’s all in a set and defined drama. Which is nearing the end of its run.”

“You mean — I am no positive good in the world at all. A back number.”

“Good! You’re necessary. For the excitement, disappointment, and humiliation of the people who will attack the real creative tasks. Consider what you are doing! Out of whim. Out of curiosity. You shine upon me, you dazzle me, you are suddenly friendly to me and tender to me. I forget my self-forgetfulness. I dare to kiss you. It seems almost incredible to me but you —— You make it seem possible that I might go far with your loveliness. You bring me near to forgetting what I am, a thing like an intellectual Megatherium, slow but sturdy, mixed up with joints like a rockfall and a style like St. Simeon Stylites — and infinite tedious toil of the spirit — and you make me dream of the pride of a lover.”

Dream,” she whispered, and radiated a complete Aurora Borealis.

But the mental inertia of Mr. Sempack was very great. Certain things were in his mind to say and he went on saying them.

“I don’t want to be brought back to this sort of thing. After I have so painfully — got away from it. I don’t want to have my illusions restored. It unmakes one. It is necessary before one can do one solitary good thing in life that one should be humiliated and totally disillusioned about oneself. One isn’t born to any living reality until one has escaped from one’s prepossession with the personal life. The personal life branches off from the stem to die. The reality of life is to contribute. . . . ”

His expression ceased to be indifferent and became obstinate. He was beginning to feel and struggle against her nearness. But he held on for a time.

“All the things in human life that are worth while have been done by clumsy and inelegant people, by people in violent conflict with themselves, by people who blundered and who remain blundering people. They hurt themselves and awake. You know nothing of the inner life of the ungracious. You know nothing of being born as a soul. The bitterness. The reluctant search for compensations. The acceptance of the fact that service must be our beauty. But now this freak of yours brings back to me the renunciations, the suppressions and stifling of desire, that began in my boyhood and darkened my adolescence. I thought I had built myself up above all these things.”

“You are — majestic,” she whispered.

“Oh, nonsense!” He groaned it and, wavering for a moment, turned upon her hungrily and drew her to him.

No soundly beautiful woman has ever doubted that a man is better than a mirror for the realisation of her delight in herself, and it was with the profoundest gratification that Lady Catherine sensed the immense appreciations of his embrace. Her kiss, her rewarding and approving kiss, was no ordinary kiss, for she meant to plant an ineffaceable memory.

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