Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 14

But the large clear obiter dicta of Mrs. McManus, those hard opaque ideas like great chunks of white quartz, were no more than an incidental entertainment for Mrs. Rylands. The main thread of her mental existence now was her discussion with her little green leather book, and with Philip, the discussion of her universe and what had to be done about it. For five days Philip sent nothing to her but three cards, not postcards but correspondence cards in envelopes from his clubs, saying he was “writing a screed” and adding endearments. Then in close succession came two bales of written matter, hard upon the sudden and quite surprising announcement in the French and English-Parisian papers that the general strike in England had collapsed.

These “screeds” were very much in the manner of his former communication. Some lavender-tinted sheets from Honeywood House testified to a night spent at his Aunt Rowena’s at Barnes. But there were no more drawings; he was getting too deeply moved for that sort of relief. There was not the same streak of amused observation, and there was an accumulating gravity. He reasoned more. The opening portion was a storm of indignation against the British Gazette, the government control of broadcasting and the general suppression of opinion in the country. That was very much in his old line. He had taken the trouble to copy out a passage from the government proclamation of Friday and print and underline certain words. ”ALL RANKS of the armed forces of the crown are notified that ANY ACTION they may find it necessary to take in an honest endeavour to aid the civil power will receive both now AND AFTERWARDS the full support of the Government.” Something had happened, Mrs. Rylands noted! He had spelt “government” right! And an anticipatory glance over the pages in her hand showed that he was going on spelling it right. To these quoted words Philip had added in a handwriting that was distorted with rage, rather thicker and less distinct: “in other words, ‘Shoot and club if you get half a chance and the Home Office is with you. You will be helped now and let off afterwards.’ This is publicly asking for violence in the most peaceful social crisis the world has ever seen. I told you the government wanted to have a fight and this proves it. But this isn’t the worst. . . . ”

He went on to tell of how the Bishop of Oxford, the Masters of Balliol and University and a number of leading churchmen had called upon the government to reopen negotiations and how the Archbishop of Canterbury had attempted in vain to get a movement afoot in the country to arrest the struggle and revive negotiations. The Archbishop had preached on this on Sunday and had tried to mobilise the pulpits throughout the country. He had found himself treated as a rebel sympathiser and choked off. The British Gazette had suppressed the report of this church intervention and the government had prohibited its publication by the British Broadcasting Company. “They want this fight. They want to get to violence,” wrote Philip, with his pen driving hard into the paper, and proceeded to denounce “Winston’s garbled reports of Parliament. Anything against them is either put in a day late or left out altogether. People like Oxford and Grey are cut to rags. Cook said of the negotiations, days ago, ‘It is hopeless,’ and the dirty rag quoted this as though he said it of the strike. And we have a cant that these Harrovians are real public school boys and understand fair play!”

It was funny to find the faithful Etonian breaking off in this way to gird at Harrow and make it responsible for the most unteachable of its sons.

It seemed Philip had been in the House of Commons on Friday and heard a discussion between Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Thomas that more than confirmed his suspicions that the petty Daily Mail strike and the consequent break was a foreseen excuse, meanly and eagerly snatched at by the government. Then came a rumour, current at the time but with no foundation in fact, that the King (or according to another version the Prince of Wales) had wanted to say something reconciling and had been advised against such a step. “Jix as Mussolini,” commented Philip, quite convinced of the story. He stormed vividly but briefly at the broadcasting programmes and the talk in the clubs. Came a blank half-sheet, just like one of those silences in some great piece of music before the introduction of a new theme and then, on a new page and very distinctly: “I have had a damned row with Uncle Robert.”

This was the motive of the next part of Philip’s composition, written more evenly and more consecutively than anything he had done before, the Largo so to speak. He expanded and developed and varied his jangling sense of Uncle Robert, and gathered it altogether into a measured and sustained denunciation. He set out to convey with a quite unconscious vigour, his deep astonishment, his widening perplexity and his gathering resentment that anything of the nature of Lord Edensoke should exist in the world, let alone in such close and authoritative proximity to himself. At times his discourse might have borne the heading “The Young Man discusses the Older Sort of Human Male.”

“He’s damned,” he repeated. “I never realised before that anyone could go about this world without any stink or fuss, so completely and utterly dead and damned as he is.” He jumped into capitals to say his worthy uncle was a “Bad Man, nerve and muscle, blood and bone.” He declared that it was impossible to understand the general strike, the coal strike, the outlook in England, the outlook for all the world until Lord Edensoke had been anatomised and analysed. And forthwith he set about the business.

Philip made it quite clear that up to his early conversations with his uncle after his return to England, he had supposed Lord Edensoke to be animated by much the same motives as himself, namely by a strong if vague passion to see the world orderly and growing happier, by a real wish to have the Empire secure, beneficent and proud, by a desire to justify wealth by great services, and that he was prepared to give time and face losses that the course of human affairs should go according to his ideas of what was fine and right. These had always been Philip’s own assumptions, albeit rather dormant ones. But ——

“He doesn’t care a rap for the Empire as an Empire,” wrote the amazed nephew. “He sees it simply as a not too secure roof over a lot of the family investments.” Lord Edensoke’s sense of public duty did not exist. He despised his social class. His loyalty to the King amounted to a firm assurance that he diverted public attention from the real rulers of the country. People liked the monarchy; it saved public issues from the dangerous nakedness they had in America. “Otherwise if he thought there was a dividend to be got out of it, he would boil the king in oil.” He didn’t believe in social order, in any sort of responsibility that a policeman and a law court could not check. Frankly, in his heart, he saw himself to be a brigand, carrying an enviable load through a world wherein nothing better than brigandage was possible. Law was a convenient convention among the robbers and you respected it just so far as it would be discreditable or dangerous to break the rules.

Came an illuminating anecdote. At dinner Lord Edensoke had shown a certain weariness of Philip’s political and social crudities. By way of getting to more interesting things he had opened a fresh topic with “By the bye, Philip, have you any loose balances about? I think I could make a good use of them.”

He had proceeded to explain to Philip’s incredulity that the general strike was bound to collapse as soon as the scared and incapable labour leaders saw an excuse for letting it down that would save their faces with their followers, and that then the miners would be left locked out exactly as if there had been no general strike — but with “diminished public support.” “That fellow Cook” could be relied upon to keep them out and to irritate the public against them. His lordship did his best to disabuse Philip’s mind of the idea that there would be any settlement for some time. “You mean you won’t settle anyhow?” Philip had said. Lord Edensoke’s reply had been a faint smile and a gesture of the hand. So, as Rylands and Cokeson would have thousands of trucks unemployed, and easily handed over to other uses, the thing to do was to buy foreign coal now, and release and distribute it later when the community at large came to realise all that Lord Edensoke knew. Coal would come back to fancy prices — higher than ‘21. “There’s a speculative element, of course,” he had said. “The miners may collapse,” but as he saw it, there was, saving that possibility, anything from twenty-five to a hundred and fifty per cent. to be made in the course of the next few months upon anything Philip chose to bring in to this promising operation.

Philip ended his account of this conversation in wild indignation. “We are the coal-owners of Great Britain,” he fumed, “and this is how we do our duty by the country that trusts us, honours us, makes peers of us! We starve the miner and strangle industry — and we make ‘anything from twenty-five to a hundred and fifty per cent.’ out of a deal in foreign coal. Naturally we do nothing to bring about a settlement. Naturally we are for the Constitution and all that, which lets us do such things.” Philip’s narrative wasn’t very clear, but this was the point it would seem at which the “damned row with Uncle Robert” occurred.

Respect for the head of the family made its final protest and fled. It was Philip’s last dinner with his senior partner. He seemed to have talked, according to his uncle’s judgment, “sheer Bolshevism.” It was doubtful if they got to their cigars. Philip returned to the Reform Club and spent the rest of a long evening consuming the Club notepaper at a furious pace.

Details of the final breach did not appear because Philip swept on to a close, unloving investigation of his uncle’s soul.

“I seem to have been thinking of him most of the time since,” he said.

What did Lord Edensoke think he was up to, Philip enquired. Clearly he did not suppose he was living for anything outside himself. He had no religion, no superstition even. He had a use for religion, but that was a different matter. For him religion was a formality that kept people in order. It was good that inferior and discontented people should be obliged to sacrifice to the God of Things as they Are. It set up a code of outer decency and determined a system of restraints. Nor had he any patriotism. The British Empire in his eyes was a fine machine for utilising the racial instincts of the serviceable British peoples for the enforcement of contracts and the protection of invested capital throughout the world. If they did not, as a general rule, get very much out of it in spite of their serviceableness that was their affair. They could congratulate themselves that their money was on a gold standard even if they had none, and they had the glory of ruling India if even they were never allowed to go there. He liked the English climate and avoided it during most of the winter. It was a good climate for work and Courtney Wishart in its great park just over the hills from Edensoke was a stately and enviable home, one of those estates that made England a land fit for heroes to die for. He had no passion for science. The spirit that devotes whole lives to the exquisite unravelling of reality was incomprehensible to him. He preferred his reality ravelled. It was better for business operations. He betrayed no passion for any sort of beautiful things. He would never collect pictures nor make a garden unless he wanted to beat someone else at it or sell it at a profit. He loved no one in the world — Philip would tell her a little later of his uncle’s loves. In brief he lived simply for himself, for satisfactions directly related to himself as the centre of it all and for nothing else whatever.

One of his great satisfactions was winning a game. He was not, Philip thought, avaricious simply but he liked to get, because that was besting the other fellow. His business was his great game. He liked to feel his aptitude, his wariness, to foresee, and realise and let other people realise the shrewd precision of his anticipations. He played other games for recreation. He was reported to be a beastly bridge player, very good but spiteful and envious even of his partner. He played in the afternoons at the Lessington after lunch and Philip said rumour had it that several other members of that great club would go into hiding and get the club servants to report for them, not venturing near the card-room, until Edensoke was seated at his game. He played golf bitterly well. Physically he was as good as Geoffry, the same sure eye and accurate movements. He had been a memorable bat at cricket and still made a devastating show at tennis. And he was a wonderful shot. Business kept him from much shooting, but he loved a day now and then, when he could take his place among the guns and kill and kill. He would stand, with those thin lips of his pressed together, while the scared birds came rocketing over him, wings whirring, hearts beating fast. He showed them. But he had no blood lust. On the whole he would rather play against a man than merely triumph over birds and silly things that probably did not feel humiliated even when they were shot. Besting people and feeling that the other fellow realises or will presently find out that he has been bested was subtler and far more gratifying. “You know that scanty laugh of his,” wrote Philip, “rather like a neigh. The loser gets it.” Just now he was besting the miners. “The more he gets them down the better he will be pleased.” The profits were a secondary consideration, important only like scoring above the line.

He loved no one. “I don’t think I have ever talked to you about Aunt Sydney,” said Philip, and proceeded to explain the domestic infelicities of his uncle. She had been a brilliant beautiful girl but poor, one of the “needy Needhams.” Uncle Robert would never have married a rich and independent wife because it would have been difficult to best her and hard to try. He had kept Aunt Sydney down for a time and she had been almost treacherously subservient until she had got him well committed to infidelity with a secretary, and had enticed him into provable cruelty. She had been a patient Grisel who had eavesdropped, stolen letters and bided her time. A lover, well hidden, gave her sage counsel. Then she had held her husband up with the threat of a discreditable divorce. Uncle Robert had no stomach for being “talked about all over London.” It was one of his essential satisfactions to be respected and high and unapproachable, and he must have had some bad hours over the affair. “We all rather like Aunt Sydney on that account,” wrote Philip.

She arranged a separation of mutual toleration and wore her lover upon her sleeve in full view of her baffled spouse. He became “Burdock, the chap Lady Edensoke keeps,” her watchful and not always comfortable shadow.

Lord Edensoke tried to make this seem to be his own design and flaunted it with various conspicuous, expensive and rather discordant ladies for some years to show everybody just how things were. Then he reverted to his more congenial pursuit of discovering, seducing, exalting and throwing over, very young and needy beauties from the middle classes. He coveted them, bested them, got them, hated them because so plainly he had bought them, and threw them over with well established expensive habits and a contemptible income. “He sets about it like a cat,” wrote Philip. “I have seen him on the platform at a Mansion House meeting, fixing some pretty girl in the audience like an old cat spotting a nestling in a bush. He sets about it very quietly and cleverly. He has all sorts of secretarial jobs to offer, and I believe there is a friendly West End dressmaker. He can even seem to be influential round about one or two theatres if a girl has ambitions of that sort. He gets them and makes them submit to this and that, and they become afraid of him. They realise they are unsafe. He can turn them back to poverty and the streets, so easily. When he has got them thoroughly afraid of him, then I suppose he feels like God. In the end, it does not matter how they propitiate. Go they must. In his life, there must have been a score of these —romances.”

Thus Philip, relentlessly. These were the interests and amusements of Lord Edensoke, the satisfactions that kept him alive and made the life he lived worth while, the besting of men, the abasement of women, the sense of conquest assured by the big balance, the big house, the many servants, the champagne you couldn’t buy in the open market, the special cigars, the salutation of common men, the whispered “That’s Edensoke,” the rare visits to the House of Lords. What other reality was there? These were the things that kept the look of quiet self-approval on those thin lips and assured the great coal-owner that he had the better of the sentimentalists and weaklings about him, that he could rank himself above these other men who wasted their time upon ideas and causes, who kept faith beyond the letter of their bargains, and sacrificed and restrained themselves for their friends and their associates, their wives and their women-kind. “My dear,” wrote Philip, rising to the full gravity of his Largo, “this is the analysis of Uncle Robert. These are his ends and all that he is! For the first time in my life I have looked at him squarely and this is what he is. And it is a hideous life. It is a hideous life and yet it comes so close to me that it is a life I too might drift into living.

“This is a common way of living among our kind of people now. Edensoke is no rare creature. There are more Edensokes than know they are [_sic_]. Edensokes with variations. There are hundreds of him now among the rich, and thousands and thousands as one goes down the scale to the merely prosperous. Some are a little different about their womenfolk and buy them dearer and make more of a show with them. Many are sillier — I admit he has a good brain. Lots are too cowardly for ‘romances’ and leave the women alone — but not so many as there used to be. Most have fads and hobbies that give them a little distinction, but all are equally damned. You and I could write down a score of names in five minutes. Not one that wouldn’t rejoice to be in that deal over the foreign coal, if they knew of it and knew how to get into it. Not one, that wouldn’t feel bested to hear of a coal miner with a decent bathroom, a Morris car and a shelf of books. The government and the bunch behind the government, abounds in his quality. Soames Forsyte again! — how near old Galsworthy has come to him. The living damned.

“And in a world of men like this,” Philip culminated, “we are waiting about for old Sempack’s millennium to come of its own accord!”

Mrs. Rylands paused at the end of the sheet. The portrait of the contemporary successful man, for all the jerkiness of its strokes, struck her as devastatingly true. There was not a thing Philip was telling her about Lord Edensoke that seemed altogether new to her. Even the bilked mistresses she had known of, by intuition. And as certainly had she known, and yet never quite dared to know, that this was the quality of many men, of many powers, of much of the power in the world. The world into which she and Philip were now launching another human soul.

That too had to be reasoned out with the green leather book.

“What puts the sting into the problem of Uncle Robert,” Philip continued, “is the fact that he is after all, blood of my blood and bone of my bone. When he isn’t looking like an elderly shop-soiled version of Geoffry coming home late, he is looking like me in thirty years time. The personal question for me is, whether he is the truth about me stripped of a lot of illusion and rainbow stuff and Wordsworthian ‘clouds of glory’ and such, or whether I am still in possession of something — I don’t know — some sort of cleanness and decency, that he has lost. Which I need not lose. I’m all for alternative two, and if so, then the most important thing in the world for us is to know what has dried this up in Uncle Robert.

“I’m going to write something difficult, dear wife confessor. I can’t help being clumsy here and it will sound priggish to the square of pi. But I see it like this. There is something in me that for want of a better word I might call religious. There is something else, unless it is the same thing, that holds me to you. Not just sex and your dearness, they hold me, but something else as well that makes me put not you, but something about you, over and before myself — before ourselves.” (Marginal note: “I just can’t get away from all these ambiguous somethings but I think you will see what I mean. When a man can manage his ‘ones’ and his ‘somethings’ and his other pronouns then I suppose he has really learnt to write.") This has to do with nobleness and good faith. This is in me but not so very strong, and I thank whatever powers there be that I met you. This wants help to keep alive, and you help it to keep alive, have helped and will help it tremendously. It may be illusion but that does not matter so long as it remains bright and alive. Lots of people keep it alive through religion, church I mean and all that, but nowadays that hasn’t kept up, religion hasn’t, and a lot of us can’t make that use of it. Of any current sort of religion I mean. And it can go altogether. I have this in me, whatever it is, and so has Geoffry and so perhaps had Uncle Robert. I am more like Geoffry than you like to think and he is more like me. He didn’t have my luck in getting you and having you thinking of fine things beside me, and before and always he has had the worse of that sort of luck and he is shyer than I am and more secretive. I’ve seen what I am talking about shrink in him, but I’ve watched it and it is there. I don’t suppose there is any religion now strong enough to get him — or any sort of woman to pick him up. I don’t know. Still something lingers. It makes him uncomfortable and he is disposed to hate it and try to sneer at it until it is dead altogether. And by the same reasoning Edensoke started like this. There was a time when he thought of doing fine things and having something in his life lovelier than scoring points in a game. He had the illusion, or if you like, because practically it is the same, he had the sacred flame, whatever it is, flickering about in him. I expect Aunt Sydney made a tough start for him. He hadn’t my luck. Suppose when they two were young he had found out suddenly that she loved him — more even than her pride. Suppose something had happened like what happened to me. Infusion of blood saves lives, but being loved like that is infusion of soul. Shy men bury their hearts like that fellow in the Testament who buried his talent. And when you dig them up again, there’s nothing. Hearts must have air, have breathed upon them the breath of life. As you did. The flame is hard to light again. Now that there is no religion really, one is left to nothing but love.

“I’m writing all this just anyhow and God knows what you will make of this hotch-potch of ideas. I’ve got to cut it short and finish.

“It is one o’clock, my dear, closing time for a respectable club and I must turn out from here and walk back to South Street to bed. Not a taxi to be got.”

This first letter had been sealed down after this effort and then reopened to insert a sheet of South Street notepaper and on this was scrawled: “I open this letter again to tell you that Catherine Fossingdean has killed a man. I did not even know she was in England. I thought she was still with you. But she seems to have scuttled home directly the General Strike was begun. You know she is mixed up with the comic-opera fellow Fearon-Owen who stars it in the British Fascisti world. I can’t imagine her taste for him. Looks to me like the sort of fellow one doesn’t play cards with. Got his knighthood out of organising some exhibition. One of those splendid old English families that sold carpets in Constantinople three generations ago and was known as Feronian or some such name with a nose to it. Anyhow he’s true-blue British now. Bull-dog-breed to the marrow. Union Jack all over him. And a terrific down on the lazy good-for-nothing British working man. Who really is British, blood and bone. In some irregular way this glory of our island race has got his fingers well into an emergency organisation of automobilists, for scattering Winston’s British Gazette up and down the country, and suchlike public services. And he seems to have handed over a motor-car to Lady Catherine for moonlight rushes to the midlands.

“You know how she drives. Foot down and damn the man round the corner. Giving her a car to drive is almost as criminal as shooting blind down a crowded street. She got her man near Rugby. Two young fellows she got, but the other was only slightly injured. This one was killed dead. Tramping for a job, poor devil. And she drove on! She drove on, because she was a patriotic heroine battling against Bolshevism and all that, for God and King and Fearon-Owen and the British Gazette, particularly Fearon-Owen and the British Gazette. War is war. Nothing will be done to her. That’s all. Philip.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wells/hg/meanwhile/book2.14.html

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