Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 9

The triumphant self-absorption of Lady Catherine, a mood that comprehended not merely self-absorption but the absorption therewith of this immense and exciting and unprecedented Mr. Sempack, gave place abruptly to an entirely different state of mind, to astonishment and even a certain consternation. Central to this new phase of consciousness, was the vividly sunlit figure of little Mrs. Rylands, agape. Agape she was, dismayed, as though she had that instant been suddenly and horribly stung. A sound between the “Oo-er” of an infantile astonishment and a cry of acute pain had proclaimed her.

She stood in the blaze of the Caatinga, flushed and distressed, altogether at a loss in the presence of her surprising guests. She was bareheaded and she carried no sunshade. Her loose-robed figure had the effect of a small child astray.

A swift automatic disentanglement of Lady Catherine and Mr. Sempack had occurred. By rapid gradations all three recovered their social consciousness. In a moment they were grouped like actors who have momentarily forgotten their cues, but are about to pick them up again. Mr. Sempack stood up belatedly.

It was Lady Catherine who was first restored to speech.

“I have been telling Mr. Sempack that he ought to come into public life,” she said. “He is too great a man to remain aloof writing books.”

Mrs. Rylands’ expression was enigmatical. She seemed to be listening and trying to remember the meaning of the sounds she heard. It dawned upon Lady Catherine that her eyes were red with recent weeping. What had happened? Was this some mood of her condition?

Then Mrs. Rylands took control of herself. In another moment she was the hostess of Casa Terragena again, with the edge of her speech restored. “You’ve been persuading him very delightfully, I’m sure, dearest,” she smiled, the smile of a charming hostess — if a little wet about the eyes. “Is he going to?”

“No,” said Mr. Sempack, speaking down with large tranquil decision. But his mind was upon Mrs. Rylands.

A different line of treatment had occurred to Lady Catherine. She snatched at it hastily. She abandoned the topic of Mr. Sempack and his career. “But, my dear!” she cried. “What are you doing in this blazing sun? You ought to be tucked away in a hammock in the shade!”

Mrs. Rylands evidently thought this sudden turn of topic disconcerting. She stared at this new remark as if she disliked it extremely and did not know what to do with it.

Then she broke down. “Everybody seems to think I ought to be tucked away somewhere,” she said, and fairly sobbed. “I’ve done the unexpected. I’ve put everybody out.”

She stood weeping like a child. Consternation fell upon Lady Catherine. Mutely she consulted Mr. Sempack and a slight but masterly movement indicated that he would be better left alone with Mrs. Rylands. His wish marched with Lady Catherine’s own impulse to fly.

“I’ve got letters, lots of letters,” she said. “I’m forgetting them. I was talking. To post in Monte Carlo this afternoon. If we go, that is.”

Mrs. Rylands seemed to approve of this suggestion of a retreat and Lady Catherine became a receding umbrella that halted in the rocky archway for a vague undecided retrospect and then disappeared.

Mrs. Rylands remained standing, looking at the archway. She had an air of standing there because she had nowhere else in the whole world to go, and looking at the archway because there was nothing else on earth to look at. She might have been left on a platform by a train, the only possible train, she had intended to take.

“I thought I would talk to you,” she said, not looking at Mr. Sempack but still contemplating the vanished back of Lady Catherine.

“It is too hot for us to be here,” said Mr. Sempack, taking hold of the situation. “Quite close round the corner beyond the stone-pines, there is shade and running water and a seat.”

“It was absurd, but I thought I would talk to you.” Her intonation implied that this was no longer a possibility.

Mr. Sempack made no immediate reply.

The first thing to do he perceived was to get Mrs. Rylands out of the blaze of the sun. Then more was required of him. Evidently she had been assailed by some sudden, violent, and nearly unbearable trouble. Something had struck her, some passionate shocking blow, that had detached her spinning giddily from everything about her. And she had thought of him as large, intelligent, immobile, neutral — above all and in every sense neutral, as indeed a convenient bulk, a sympathetic disinterested bulk, to which one might cling in a torrent of dismay, and which might even have understanding to hold one on if at any time one’s clinging relaxed. He had been the only possible father confessor. Sexlessness was a primary necessity to that. In this particular case. For he knew, the thought emerged with unchallenged assurance, that her trouble concerned Philip and Philip’s fidelity. And instead of finding a priest, she had, just at this phase when the idea of embraces was altogether revolting to her, caught him embracing.

He glimpsed her present vision of the whole world as lying, betraying, and steamily, illicitly intertwined. And since his instincts and his habits of mind were all for resolving the problems of others and extracting whatever was helpful in the solution, since he liked his little hostess immensely and was ready not only to help in general but anxious to help her in particular, he did his best to push the still glowing image of Lady Catherine into the background of his mind and set himself to efface the bad impression their so intimate grouping had made upon Mrs. Rylands.

With an entirely mechanical submission to his initiative she was walking beside him towards the shade when he spoke.

“I was talking about myself to Lady Catherine,” he said and paused to help his silent companion down a stepway. “I think I betrayed a certain sense of my ungainliness. . . . I am ungainly. . . . Lady Catherine is full of generous impulsive helpfulness and her method of reassuring me was — dramatic and — tangible.”

Mrs. Rylands made no immediate reply.

A score or so of paces and they were in the chequered shade of the stone pines and then a zigzag had taken them out of the Caatinga altogether and down to a gully, with a trickle of water and abundant ferns and horse-tails and there in a cool cavernous place, that opened to them like a blessing, was a long seat of wood. Mrs. Rylands sat down. Mr. Sempack stood over her, a little at a loss.

“I thought I might talk to you,” she repeated. “I thought I might be able to talk to you.”

“And now — something has spoilt me,” he said. “Perhaps I know how you feel. . . . I wish. . . . If you cannot talk to me, perhaps you will let me sit down here and even, it may be, presently say a word or so to you.”

He sat down slowly beside her and became quite still.

“The world has gone ugly,” she said.

He stirred, a rustle of interrogation.

“It is all cruel and ugly,” she burst out. “Ugly! I wish I were dead.”

Mr. Sempack did not look at her. She swallowed her tears unobserved. “I was afraid this would happen to you,” he said, “from the very moment I saw you. Afraid! I knew it had to happen to you.”

She looked at him in astonishment. “But how do you know what has happened?”

“I don’t. That is — I know no particulars. But I know you thought of a life, subtle and fine as Venetian glass, and I know that is all shattered.”

“I thought life could be clean and fine.”

Mr. Sempack made no answer for a moment. Then he said: “And how do you know it isn’t clean and fine?”

“He told me lies. At least he acted lies. He pretended she was nothing ——”

Mr. Sempack considered that. “Has it ever occurred to you that your husband is a very young man? Sensitive minded and fine.”

He!

“Yes. In spite of everything. And telling a harsh truth is one of the last things we learn to do. Most of us never do. He hasn’t told all sorts of hard truths even to himself.”

“Hard truths and harsh truths!” said the lady, as though she did her best to apprehend Mr. Sempack’s indications. “You don’t know — the brutality. . . . ”

She choked.

“And she is nothing to him,” said Mr. Sempack serenely.

“You don’t understand what has happened. There they were. In the little bathing chalet. . . . ”

Her woe deepened. “Anyone might have come upon them!”

“Perhaps they had accounted for everybody but you.”

“My fault then.”

“They saw you?”

“Oh! they saw me.”

“And he stayed with her?”

“No. He came after me almost at once.”

“You told him to go back to her.”

“How do you know?”

“It was the first thing to say. And he didn’t go back.”

“He tried to excuse himself?”

“That was difficult.”

“He said horrible things. Oh horrible!”

Mr. Sempack’s silence was an invincible question and moreover Mrs. Rylands was driven by an irresistible impulse to tell the dreadful things that threatened to become destructive and unspeakable monstrosities if they were not thrust out while they still had some communicable form. Even now she told them with a shadow of doubt in her mind.

“He said, ‘I can’t live this life of milk and water. I must get excited somehow — or I shall burst!’”

“That stated a case,” said Mr. Sempack with deliberation. “That stated a case.”

She weighed this for some moments as though she felt it ought to mean something. Then she seemed to feel about in her mind for a lost thread and resumed: “I said nothing. I hurried on.”

“He asked you to listen?”

“I couldn’t. Not then.”

“You went on and he followed — that extremely inarticulate young man, trying to express things that he felt but could not understand. And you were in blind flight from something you did not wish to understand.”

“He caught hold of me and I dragged myself away.”

Mr. Sempack waited patiently.

“He shouted out ‘Oh hell‘ very loudly and dropped behind. I don’t know where he went. He is somewhere down there. Perhaps he went back to her.”

“And that was how it happened?”

“Yes,” she said, “it happened like that.”

She stared in front of her for a long time, and Mr. Sempack had so much to say that he found himself unable to say anything. To meet this case a whole philosophy was needed. The silence unrolled.

“My Philip!” she whispered at last.

It was clear that whatever idea she had had of talking to Mr. Sempack had evaporated from her mind. “I don’t know why I have told you of this,” she said at last with the slightest turn of her head towards him. “The heat. . . . I shall go back to bed. Put myself away.”

She stood up.

“I will come back with you as far as the house if I may,” said Mr. Sempack.

They walked in the completest silence. Not even a consolatory word came to him.

He watched her vanish between the white pillars into the deep cool shadows of the hall. “Poor young people! What a mess it is!” he said, and entirely oblivious of Lady Catherine, standing splendidly at the great staircase window and ready to descend at a word, he walked, downcast and thoughtful, along an aisle of arum lilies towards a great basin full of nuphar. He clasped his hands behind him and humped one shoulder higher than the other. His shambling legs supported him anyhow.

Here was something that it was immensely necessary to think out, and to think out into serviceable conclusions soon. He could not attend to the outlying parts of his person.

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