Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ I

For a brief interval it seemed probable that the dispersal of the party would be even more thorough than Mrs. Rylands and Lady Catherine had contemplated. Mr. Sempack, after what would appear to have been a troubled night, proclaimed his intention of going back to Nice forthwith to get some books and carry them off with him to Corsica.

His explanations lacked lucidity. He was not a good enough liar to invent a valid reason for going to Corsica. Lady Catherine, very subtly, left him to Mrs. Rylands, who summoned him secretly to the little sitting-room next her bedroom and received him in a beautiful flowery Chinese silk wrapper, and told him how she had looked forward to talking to him when the others had gone. She reduced him to the avowal that his motive in going was “mere restlessness,” contrived to convert the Corsican project into a few days’ walking from some centre upon the Route des Alpes, and made him promise to come back so soon as he had walked himself calm.

Neither she nor he made the slightest attempt to account for his restlessness. She accepted it as a matter of course. So with a slightly baffled air, carrying a knapsack and a small valise and leaving his more serious luggage as it were in pawn, Mr. Sempack took the local train for Nice.

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan was also affected by the general dislodgment. He discovered or invented a friend — Mrs. Rylands was in doubt which — a friend he had not met for years at that jolly hotel with the convex landlord at Torre Pellice up above Turin, and remained oscillating on the point of departure for some days — without actually going, keeping the friend in reserve.

The only irremovable visitor indeed was dear Miss Fenimore, who made it apparent, quietly but clearly, that she had never yet been in at the birth of a baby and this time nothing whatever would induce her to abandon her place in the queue. She was resolved to be useful and devoted and on the spot, and nothing but two or three carbinieri seemed likely to dislodge her. Lady Grieswold after circling vaguely about the ideas of Mentone or even Florence was drawn down by the centripetal force of the green tables to a not too expensive pension at Beausoleil.

The Tamars went off a day earlier than they had intended, they were taking a night at Cannes en route to stay with the Jex-Hiltons and talk to a distinguished refugee from Fascism whose house had been burnt, whose favourite dog had been skinned alive, and who had been twice seriously injured with loaded canes and sandbags on account of some mild criticism of the current regime. Lord Tamar had hitherto been too diplomatic to express even a private opinion of Mussolini, but he felt that possibly it might give pause to that energetic person’s dictatorial tendencies to learn that one or two English people of the very best sort were not in the very least afraid to meet his victims and make pertinent enquiries about him.

Colonel and Mrs. Bullace had some difficulties about their wagon-lit and went a day later than they had proposed. The Colonel threw a tremendous flavour of having been recalled over his departure. The vague suggestion that some sort of social struggle of a definitive sort was brewing in England grew stronger and stronger as his farewells came nearer. Philip came down to find him discoursing to his wife and Miss Fenimore and Lady Grieswold, who was going with the Bullaces as far as Monte Carlo.

“This coal difficulty is neither the beginning nor the end of the business,” he was saying. “Rest assured. We know. It is just the thin end of the Moscow wedge. They’ve been watched. They’ve been watched. Intelligence against intelligence.”

He would have preferred not to have had Philip join his audience, but he stuck to his discourse. Bombaccio brought his master his coffee and Philip sat back, hands in his trouser pockets, staring deeply at his guest.

“You really think,” said Miss Fenimore. “You really think ——?”

“We know,” said the Colonel. “We know.”

“Is this the social revolution again?” asked Philip.

“It would be, if we were not prepared.”

“But what are you prepared for?” asked Philip. “What do you think is going to happen? To need you at home?”

“The British working man, Sir, has to take smaller wages and work longer hours — and he won’t. Ever since the war and Lloyd George’s nonsense, he’s been too uppish. And he has to climb down. He’s got to climb down before he topples things over. That’s the present situation. And behind it — the Red Flag. Moscow.”

“Surely this coal business is a question in itself. We have the Coal Commission Report. The owners have haggled a bit about things and the men are inclined to be stiff, but there’s nothing that can’t be got over, so far as I can see. It’s a case of give and take. Baldwin is doing his utmost to bring the parties together and arrange a settlement and a fresh start. Won’t he get it? I don’t see where your social conflict is to come in.”

“I will explain,” said Colonel Bullace, and cleared his throat. He turned and rapped the table. “There will be no coal settlement.”

“Why?”

“Neither the miners nor the coal-owners will agree to anything.”

“Well?”

“Then there will be a lock-out and then — we know what they are up to all right — and then there will be a strike — of all the workers — yes, of all the workers in the country, a new sort of strike, Sir, a general strike, a political strike, an attempt at ——” The Colonel paused and then gave the words as it were in italics —“Red Revolution!”

“In England!”

Philip’s voice betrayed his unfathomable faith in British institutions.

“We know it. We know it from men like Thomas, sensible men. Too sensible for the riff-raff behind ’em. The hotheads, the Moscow crew, have had this brewing for some time. Don’t think we’re not informed. It has been their dream — for years. This coal trouble won’t be settled, rest assured, and I for one, don’t want to see it settled. No, Sir. The fight has to come and it may as well come now while we have men, real red-blooded men like Churchill and Joynson-Hicks and Birkenhead, to fight it through.

“Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just — yes.

“But Thricer he who gets his blow in fust.”

Colonel Bullace pronounced these words in ringing tones, nodded his head, and gave his host a stern grimly masticating profile until he caught his wife’s eye. His wife’s eye had been seeking capture for some time, and now, assisted by an almost imperceptible pantomime it said, “egg — moustache.” Colonel Bullace made the necessary corrections with as little loss of fierceness as possible.

“You mean,” said Philip, “that when Baldwin calls the conference of owners and men and tells them to make peace on the lines of the coal commission, he is, in plain English, humbugging — marking time for something else to happen? Something else about which he cannot be altogether unaware.”

“Mr. Baldwin is a good man,” said the Colonel. “But he does not fully realise what we are up against.”

Mrs. Bullace nodded. “He doesn’t know.”

“We do,” said the Colonel. “The General Strike, the Social Revolution in England is timed for the first of May, this first of May. The attack is as certain as the invasion of Belgium was in August 1914.”

A diversion was made by the appearance of Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan in the beautiful tussore suit. He hovered in the doorway. “Don’t tell me,” he expostulated, “that you are talking coal, in the midst of this delicious heat!”

He sauntered to the open terrace, rubbing the faultless hands, and returned to confide — with just one greenish glint of the diamond — his need of a plentifully sugared grape-fruit to Bombaccio’s satellite. He indicated the exact height of the sugar. “Zucchero. Allo montano. Come questa.”

Philip got up, hesitated towards the terrace and then went into the hall and upstairs to his wife’s room.

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