Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 19

It seemed incredibly late, later than any night had ever been before; but Mrs. Rylands was in no mood for sleep. She sat in her little sitting-room, dimly lit by one shaded light, and listened to the rambling astonishing talk of Signor Vinciguerra. He had bathed himself and washed and shaved and emerged to efface the first impression he had made of something worn out, physically over-fed and under-trained and mentally abased. In Philip’s pyjamas, slippers and dressing-gown, he looked now a quite intelligent and credible Italian gentleman. He consumed his bovril and toast with restrained eagerness. He talked English with a sort of fluent looseness and the only faults in his manners were a slight excess of politeness and an understandable jumpiness.

Mrs. McManus sat in a corner of the room, almost swallowed up in shadow, and she took only a small share in the conversation. At any time she might pounce and dismiss the talkers to their slumbers. Frant, after much useful reconnoitring, had gone to bed. Bombaccio and his minions had come back to the house, not too excessively excited, and gone to bed also, quite unsuspiciously. The Fascists it seemed had put a cordon round the garden and purposed to beat its thickets by daylight. Apparently they had an idea that in the morning Vinciguerra might either be caught exhausted or found dead within its walls. Mrs. Rylands determined to mobilise all her garden staff to make a fuss at the least signs of trampling or beating down her plants and flowers, while she herself telephoned complaints to the Ventimiglia police. It would look better to make a fuss than remain suspiciously meek under their invasion.

The respited quarry of the Fascists talked in weary undertones.

“To an Englishwoman it must be incredible. A man hunted like a beast! And for why? The simplest criticisms. Italy has embarked upon a course that can have only one end, National tragedy. Twice I have been beaten. Once in Rome in full daylight in the Piazza della Colonna. Once in the little town where formerly I was mayor. Left on the ground. I was carried home. Then my house watched by sentinels, day and night. Followed whenever I went abroad. It became intolerable. I could not breathe.”

He shook his head. “I fled.”

For some moments he stared in silence at his memories.

“Imagine! Your Bertrand Russell. Or your George Trevelyan, that fearless friend of Italy and Freedom. Men of that sort. Chased and beaten. Because they will not flatter. Because they will not bow down. To a charlatan!”

He said the last word in a whisper and glanced about him as he said it. He grimaced his loathing.

“We were in Civilisation. We were in a free country. And suddenly this night fell upon us. Truly — I learnt it in English at school — the price of freedom is eternal vigilance!

“This whole country is one great prison. A prison with punishments and tortures. For everyone who thinks. For everyone who speaks out. I made no plots. I went out of politics after the election of 1924. But I wrote and said Italy becomes over-populous. She must restrain her population or make war and war will be her destruction. I persisted that these facts should be kept before the Italian mind. . . . That was enough.

“Italy perhaps has never advanced since the Risorgimento. She seemed to do so after her unification, but possibly she did not. Only you Anglo-Saxons have won your way to real freedom, freedom of thought, freedom of speech and proposal. Slowly, by centuries, surely, you have won it. Perhaps the French too. Germany I doubt. You have your great public men, respected, influential, no matter the government. Your Shaw, your Gilbert Murray, your Sempack; Americans like Nicholas Murray Butler, Upton Sinclair, Arthur Brisbane. Free to speak plainly. Bold as lions. Free — above the State. But in Italy — that actor, that destroyer, that cannibal silences us all! Performs his follies. Puts us all to indignities and vile submissions. I can’t tell you the half of things submitted. The shame of it! For Italy! The shame for every soul in Italy!

“I am a comfortable man. Not everything in my life has been well. I have been used to the life — eh, the life of a man of the world. Prosperity. Indulgence perhaps. But I had rather be this hunted thing I am than any man who keeps his peace with State and Vatican and lives now in Rome prospering. Yes — even here. In danger. Wounded and Dead perhaps, dear Madam, if it were not for you.”

His voice died away.

“But is there no movement for freedom in Italy?” asked Mrs. Rylands.

“We took freedom for granted. We took progress and justice for granted. We did not organise for freedom and progress then, and now we cannot. No. All things in life, good things or bad things, rest on strength. Strength and opportunity. If you have things that you desire it is because you willed well enough to have it so. There was no liberal will in Italy but only scattered self-seeking men. Politicians were divided. Intellectual men, not very cordial, not banded together, not ready to die for freedom, one for all and all for one. Rather pleased to see a rival put down. No sense of a danger in common. When I was young and read your Herbert Spencer and your liberal thinkers and writers I said the great time, the great civilisation, will come of itself. Nothing comes of itself except weeds and confusion. We did not reckon with the hatred of dull people for things that are great and fair. We did not realise the strength of stupidity to call a halt to every hope we held. We thought there were no powers of darkness left. And now —— Now —— . . . Progress has been taken unawares! Progress has been waylaid and murdered.

“But at least the freedom and progress of the English-speaking world is safe. Italy will not always be as she is now.”

“Nothing is safe in life. Now I know. What has happened in Italy may happen all over the world. The malignant, the haters of new things and fine things, the morally limited, the violent and intense, the men who work the State against us, are everywhere. Why did we not see it? Man civilises slowly, slowly. Eternal vigilance is the price of civilisation.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Rylands, “I begin to see — things I never suspected before, about me and supporting me. One may trust to servants and policemen — and custom. And live in a dream.”

Signor Vinciguerra assented by a gesture.

Came a pause.

The little travelling clock upon the table pinged one single stroke and Mrs. McManus stirred. “One o’clock in the morning!” said Mrs. McManus, and rose masterfully. “You’ll be wanting your rest, Signor Vinciguerra. There is much to be done yet before you are safe in France.”

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