Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 13

Mrs. Rylands was agreeably interested in Mrs. McManus.

Stella Binny had never quite seemed to exist and now this Mrs. McManus intensified that quality. Stella arrived just like anyone, exactly like anyone. She might have been an item in big figures in statistics; visitor 3792, normal. But Mrs. McManus was exceptionally real. The only other thing that was equally real in her presence was the expectation of Mrs. Rylands. She stuck out from Stella in the car; and her one entirely masculine valise, painted with broad bands of white and blue, made all the rest of the joint luggage a mere et-cetera.

She was strong and rather tall, she got into a nurse’s costume straight away upon her arrival, she presented a decided profile, a healthy complexion and lightish hair just shot with grey. It was not faded hair, it was either light brown or it was silver; it never hesitated. On her lips rested a smile and a look of modest assurance. One perceived at once that she knew every possible thing there was to be known about obstetrics and that it rather amused her. Partly that smile of hers was due to the fact that she had very fine large teeth and her lips had stood no nonsense with them and had agreed to meet pleasantly but firmly outside them. Her eyes were observant, ready and disposed (within reason) to be kind. Her speech was pervaded by a quality that made it rather more definite in outline and rather clearer in statement than normal English. Mrs. Rylands referred it to Ulster. She felt that this was confirmed when Mrs. McManus took an early opportunity to mention that she was a “Prodestant.” Nowadays Protestants who call themselves Protestants are only to be found in Ulster and the backwoods of America. Mrs. McManus evidently did not come from the backwoods of America; her accent would have been entirely different if she had.

“Almost all my work is done in Italy and the south of France in Catholic families, and I shouldn’t get half of it if I wasn’t known to be a Prodestant out and out,” she explained. “It gives them confidence. You see ——”

Her expression conveyed an intense desire to be just and exact. “You can’t make a really thorough nurse out of a Roman Catholic woman. It’s known. There’s holy, devoted women among these Roman Catholic nurses, mind you. I’m not denying it. Some of them are saints, real saints. It is a privilege to meet them. But what you want in a nurse is not a saint; it is a nurse. They aren’t nurses, first and foremost and all the time. They’re worried about this holiness of theirs. That’s where they fall short. They fuss about with their souls, confessing and all that, taking themselves out and looking at themselves, and it distracts them. It takes them off their work. How can you think about what you are doing when all the time you are asking yourself, ‘Am I behaving properly?’ and keeping your mind off evil thoughts. Keeping their minds off evil thoughts indeed! Why! a real nurse like me just thinks of what she happens to be doing and lets her mind rip. The unholy things have come into my mind right under the nose of the doctor you’d hardly believe, Mrs. Rylands. And gone clean out of it again. Whereas one of them Roman Catholics would be all for laying hold of it and keeping it and carrying it off to tell her confessor afterwards like as if she’d laid an egg. And meanwhile with all that much of trouble in her, she’d be bound to do something wrong. Holy they certainly are I allow. But holiness is a full time job, Mrs. Rylands, and it only leaves enough over for nursing as will make a reasonably good amateur. And amateurs they are. So I keep to it I’m a Prodestant just to show I’m not that sort. Which is as much as to say if I don’t nurse well I’m damned, and there’s no excuses.

“And then all that purity of theirs! It takes a Prodestant to wash all over every day,” said Mrs. McManus. “These Catholics — they’d get ideas or something. There’s nuns haven’t washed all over for years. And think all the better of themselves for it.

“And that’s all about it,” said Mrs. McManus, suddenly as if winding up her dissertation.

“There’s your friend Miss Binny,” she resumed. “A nicer lady I’ve never met. And she’s just eaten up with this idea of being converted to Catholicism and all that. It’s wonderful what she gives to it. They say she’s visited nearly every image and picture there is in Italy where there’s a Stella Maris, that being one of the Virgin-Marys they have. In a Rolls-Royce car. I’ve no doubt it comforted her greatly, if she happened to be wanting comfort, and anyhow it was a grand occupation for her. Not having anything better to do. Catholic she is, like new paint. But would she have brought a Roman Catholic nurse along to you? She would not.”

“That’s very extraordinary,” said Mrs. Rylands, considering it. “I never thought of that.”

“Naturally,” said Mrs. McManus. “It’s only now that any occasion has arisen.”

Her opinions upon the state of affairs in Italy were equally clear cut and novel to Mrs. Rylands. “These Fascists,” she said, “are making a great to-do here — with their Mussolini and their black shirts and all that. Giving castor oil to respectable people and frightening them and beating them about and generally misbehaving themselves. They’ll do a great mischief to Italy. They’re just boys. There’s not a Fascist in Italy would dare to stand up to a really formidable woman, who knew her own mind about them. There’s suffragettes we had in London would tear them to bits. But they get taken seriously here, as if they were grown-up people. It’s dreadful the precociousness of boys here. I could tell you things would astonish you. It’s not having proper public schools makes these Fascists. We’ll never get them in England, try though they may.”

She reflected. “Those public schools of ours in England are by all accounts mere sinks of iniquity. If you believe the half you’re told. And what better place could you send a growing boy to, seeing what divils boys are? And there they can work it off and get rid of it and take it out of each other. Whereas these young Fascists don’t ever grow up to proper ideas even about cutting their hair.”

“But don’t they run the country?” asked Mrs. Rylands. “Don’t they at least keep the trains punctual?”

“The roads in Italy are a disgrace to civilisation,” said Mrs. McManus. “I’ve had to bump my ladies over them. Let them mend their roads,” and so swept Fascist efficiency away.

“All you hear of Italy is this Mr. Mussolini’s propaganda,” she expanded. “He’s a great propaganding advertising sort of man. He’s the voice of Italy and he’s drowned all the other voices. Everyone has been so shut up and so beaten and arrested and all that by these young divils that had a word to say against them, that now they don’t even know the truth themselves. How can you possibly know anything about yourself if you won’t hear a word about yourself unless it’s praise? Well, that’s where they are,” said Mrs. McManus. “At bottom ——” She sighed. “The trouble with a country like Italy is that there’s no sensible women about to keep the young men in order. And speak plainly and simply to them about their goings on. They’re just mere females and Catholics, these Italian women, and that’s all there is to it.

“Would you believe it,” said Mrs. McManus, “I was stopped by some of them young Fascists on the Pincio one day and told to go back from the walk I was taking. Up to some bedevilment they were. I wouldn’t go back and I didn’t go back. I just stood where I was and looked them in the eye and told them what I thought of them. Quietly. And what I’d like to do to them if I was their mothers. In English of course. After a bit they began to look sheepish and glance sideways at one another and shrug their shoulders and in the end they let me go my way. Of course I used English. It’s always the best thing, especially with these foreigners here, to talk to them in English, if you happen to get into any sort of dispute with them. They’re conceited people and they don’t like to feel ignorant, and talking to them in English makes them feel ignorant. It puts them in the inferior position. If you talk to them in their own language you’re apt to make mistakes and that sets them off despising you. Whereas if you talk in English they despise themselves and you get the upper hand of them. Exactly like talking quietly to dogs. Never lower yourself by talking to a foreigner in his own tongue. Never seem to try to understand him. Behave as though he ought to be ashamed not to understand every word you are saying to him. You have him at your mercy.”

That, too, impressed Mrs. Rylands as a striking point of view. She made a note of it for future consideration.

Mrs. McManus professed an admiration for Casa Terragena and the gardens that was transparently a concession.

“They must have cost a terrible deal of money,” she said, as if she wished that to be taken for praise. “Dragging these flowers from all the ends of the earth to make them grow here together! The industry of it! The ways of man! Hardly a thing on earth nowadays stays where God put it.”

“If God did put it,” said Mrs. Rylands.

“A manner of speaking,” said Mrs. McManus. “There’s that big lovely purple spike thing you say came from Australia. No, I’ll not attempt to learn the name of it. Such things cumber the mind. It’s standing up there like a regiment among the rocks with all its bells open, ranks and ranks of it — waiting for insects that are all round the world away. No one ever brought over the insects it was made for. You may say it is botany and science bringing it here, but I can’t help feeling it’s taking advantage of a flower that hadn’t the power to help itself. It’s making all the summer one long First of April for it bringing it here. Day after day, more of these bells. Open for nothing.

“It’s like calling Caller Herrin’ in the wilderness of the moon,” said Mrs. McManus.

Mrs. Rylands saw her lovely garden from a new angle.

“Hundreds and hundreds of workmen it must have taken from first to last. I wonder what they thought they were doing when they made it. Anyhow — it’s a very good place, what with the sea breezes, for you to be having your baby in.”

Mrs. McManus went off at a tangent. “That butler of yours is a fine looking fellow and well set up. I doubt if Mr. Ramsay MacDonald has finer moustaches. It’s a mercy he’s so wrapped up in himself. He’d be a Holy Terror with the maids if he wasn’t.”

Perfectly true. But no one had ever remarked it before.

She regretted Philip wasn’t available. “I’m no friend to separating husband and wife when there’s a baby coming. Some people nowadays have a perfect fad for keeping them apart, just as though they were animals. But men are not animals in such respects and wives need to be comforted. Of course if he had to go back for the coal strike there’s nothing more to be said. It’s a pity.”

She explained that she did not propose to walk about with her patient more than was necessary. “You’ve got your thoughts,” she said, “and I have mine. I see you’re carrying a little green book about to write in. I needn’t chew the newspaper to make talk for you, thank goodness. The work I’ve had to do at times! But you don’t want that. I’ll hover. I’ll just hover. You’ll find I’ll always be near and just out of sight — if ever you call. I’ve been trained to hover for years.”

“You’ll find it very quiet here,” said Mrs. Rylands. “There’s very little to do.”

“I’ll never want for something to do while there’s a cross-word puzzle to be found in the paper. Wonderful the uses men can find for things like words!”

“If you’d like to run in to Monte Carlo for an afternoon or so soon the car is quite at your service. There’s really no need even to hover for a bit.”

“Do you see me breaking the bank?” said Mrs. McManus.

“Shops.”

“There again,” said Mrs. McManus.

“There’s English services in Mentone on Sunday. You must go for that.”

“I will not,” said Mrs. McManus.

“But as a Protestant ——!”

“I’m no friend to extravagance in any shape or form. When I’m in England I go to the English church and when I’m in Scotland I’m whatever sort of Presbyterian is nearest, but going to English Church services in a country of this sort is like fox hunting in Piccadilly, I’d be ashamed to be seen going there, prayer-book and all.”

An irrational impulse to make Mrs. McManus help with the little green book came to Mrs. Rylands. “But isn’t God everywhere?” she asked.

“I was not speaking of God.”

“But you are a Protestant.”

“I am that.”

“But Protestants believe in God.”

“Protestants protest against Roman Catholics. And well they may.”

“But you believe in God?”

“That is a matter, Mrs. Rylands, Strictly between Himself and me.”

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