Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 3

So soon as Philip had departed it was Mrs. Rylands’ intention to begin a great clearing and tidying-up of her mind. She was delighted but also she was a little alarmed at her husband’s fall into violent self-criticism and his manifest resolve to think things out for himself. She felt that he might very easily outrun her in mental thoroughness, once he set his face in that direction, and so she would get as far along the road as she could before he could overtake her. She condemned other people for Stupidity, perhaps, too readily, but what if she were put to the question? How far from the indefensibly Stupid were the philosophical and religious assumptions upon which she rested? What really could she say she believed about the world? What did she think she was living for, if so comprehensive a question chanced to be put to her? And if she could so far accept that question as to imagine it put to her, wasn’t she in conscience bound to set about preparing her answer?

One of her Oxford cousins, some years ago, had made her a very pleasant and tantalising present of three books of blank paper, very good hand-made paper, gilt edged along the top and bound in green leather. She had resolved at once to write all sorts of things in these books, so many sorts of things, that still the pages remained virgin. But now was a great occasion. She had brought them with her to Italy. She looked for them and found them and took out one of these little volumes and handled it and turned its pages over. In this new phase of existence she had entered, she found her pleasure in the sense of touch much increased and it seemed to her that her delight in fine and pretty things was greater than it had ever been before. She almost caressed the little book and stood before her window holding it with both hands dreaming of the things she would put into it. She saw, though not very distinctly, pregnant aphorisms and a kind of index to her knowledge and beliefs spreading over those nice pages. The binding was quite beautifully tooled, the leather had a faint, exquisite smell and the end paper was creamy, powdered with gold stars, all held together by a diamond mesh.

She mused a great deal about what she would write first, but for a time she could not sit down to think out anything to the writing stage because Catherine would insist on talking to her. Hitherto she and Catherine had got on very well together but without any excesses of directness or intimacy. She had always accepted the view of her husband and his set that Catherine was “all right” and more sinned against than sinning, but she had never been disposed to wander imaginatively in those romantic tangles which made Catherine’s passions, it would seem, so different from her own.

Catherine’s role was to be a gallant and splendid beauty, a summoner and a tester of men. Men who were going east turned west at her passing and, for better or worse, were never quite the same men again. She had summoned and tested her wealthy husband until he had become an almost willing respondent, with a co-respondent of no importance, and left her the freest woman in the world. What she did was right; the essential purity of her character was not so much accepted as waved before the world like a flag. She did quite a lot of things. Cynthia had shirked her confidences because among other reasons she felt that it would make her own relations to Philip seem too abject. But the confidences came.

“I’d like to take you in the car along the upper Corniche and up to Puget-Théniers or Annot to-day,” she said. “It would do us both good. Everybody going has left me — jangling.”

“We might run against your Mr. Sempack,” said Cynthia. “Annot? Aren’t the Verdon gorges somewhere there?”

“I don’t see why all the blue mountains of France should be closed to us because Mr. Sempack is wandering about with a knapsack in a bad temper trying to remember something he has never as a matter of fact forgotten.”

Mrs. Rylands made no effort to understand. “We’d have to ask Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan to come,” she remarked.

Lady Catherine by a beautiful grimace expressed an extreme aversion to Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan. “This little sitting-room of yours is the only refuge. . . . ‘Dear Lady,’ he says. . . . Why doesn’t he go off to that other cultivated American of his at Torre Pellice?”

She became derogatory of Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan.

“I saw him from my window. He was walking along the path to the marble faun and he was waving that hand of his and bowing. All to himself. I suppose he was rehearsing some new remark.”

Her mind went off at a tangent. “Cynthia,” she said. “Do you think a man like Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan ever makes love to women — I mean, really makes love — actually?”

Mrs. Rylands declined to take up the speculation. Meanwhile Lady Catherine threw out material. “He may be seventy. Of course he’s pickled for fifty-five. He’d say things. Elegant things. Gallantry’s in the man. He’d say everything there had to be said perfectly — but then? . . . ” She brooded malignantly on possible situations.

“I suppose men go on with the forms of love-making right to the end of their lives — just like a hen runs about when its head’s chopped off.”

She came round through such speculations to what was evidently her disturbing preoccupation. “Now Mr. Sempack talks,” she said.

She plunged. “What do you think of Mr. Sempack, Cynthia? What do you think of him? What do you think of a man like that? There’s an effect of strength and greatness about him. And yet what does he do? Is he a snare and a delusion?”

She seated herself on the end of the sofa, side-saddle fashion with one foot on the floor, and regarded her friend expectantly.

“What are you up to with Mr. Sempack?” said Cynthia.

“Quarrelling.”

Mrs. Rylands would not take that as an answer. She remained quietly interrogative.

“He exasperates me,” said Lady Catherine.

“Everyone,” she went on, “seems to look up to him and respect him. Everyone, that is, who’s heard of him. Why? He’s tremendously big and I suppose there’s something big about the way he looks at the world and talks about progress, and treats all we are doing as something that will be all over in no time and that cannot matter in the least, but, after all, what does all this towering precipice sort of business amount to? He isn’t really a precipice. I suppose if some one up there in the mountains held him up and demanded his pocket-book, he’d do something about it. He couldn’t just try to pass it off with the remark that robbers would be out-of-date in quite a few centuries’ time and so it didn’t matter. Especially if they hit him or something.”

Mrs. Rylands was smilingly unhelpful.

“I believe he’d hit back,” said Lady Catherine.

“I don’t see why he shouldn’t,” said Mrs. Rylands.

“He’d be clumsy but he might hit hard. He’s one of those queer men who seem to keep strong without exercise. Unless walking is exercise.”

Mrs. Rylands offered no contributions.

“He seems to think women are like raspberries in a garden. You pick one as you go past, but you don’t go out of your way for her.”

“I can’t imagine a Mrs. Sempack.”

“It’s a bit of an exercise,” said Lady Catherine. “Rather like that awful hat of his, she’d be. Or his valise. Put up on the luggage rack, left in the consigne, covered with rags of old labels, jammed down and locked violently with everything inside higgledy-piggledy. And yet —— What is it, Cynthia? There’s something attractive about that man.”

“One or two little things I’ve observed,” reflected Cynthia absently, looking down at the dear green leather book in her hand. Then she regarded her friend.

Lady Catherine coloured slightly. “I admit it,” she said. “I suppose it’s just because he’s so wanting in visible delicacy. It gives him an effect of being tremendously male. He is that. Don’t you think that’s it, Cynthia? And something about him — as though there were immense forces still to be awakened. His voice; it’s a good voice. And something that smoulders deep in his eyes.”

Mrs. Rylands suddenly resolved to become aggressive.

“Catherine! Tell me; why did he go away from here?”

“That’s exactly what I want to know. He meant to go for good.”

“That’s why you made me see him.”

“I thought it was your place to see him.”

Mrs. Rylands put her head on one side and regarded her friend critically. “Did you make love to him —much?”

Lady Catherine’s colour became quite bright. “I want to see, my dear, what that man is like awake. I am curious. Like most women. And he hesitates and then runs away — to walk about Gorges! He did — hesitate. But this flight! . . . And here am I— left — with nothing in the world to do! . . . Except of course look after dear little you. Who’re perfectly able to look after yourself.”

Mrs. Rylands smiled with a perfect understanding at her friend. “And talk about him.”

“Well, he interests me.”

“You made love to him — and startled and amazed him. Why did you do it? You didn’t want to be Lady Catherine Sempack?”

“I want to make that man realise his position in the world. Making love — isn’t matrimony. One can be interested.”

It occurred to Lady Catherine that, in view of recent events, she might be wandering near a sore point. But Mrs. Rylands’ next remark showed her fully able to cover any sore point that might be endangered.

“Catherine — I don’t want to know about things I’m not supposed to know about — but isn’t there some one in England called Sir Harry Fearon-Owen? Who always goes about with his hyphen? Hasn’t he some sort of connexion ——?”

Lady Catherine concealed considerable annoyance rather imperfectly. She took a moment or so before she replied compactly.

“He’s in England. And he’s busy. Too busy even to write to his friends.”

“He’s preparing to save England from the Communist revolution, isn’t he? He’s one of Colonel Bullace’s great idols. The Colonel talked about him.”

Lady Catherine allowed herself to be reluctantly drawn off the Sempack scent.

“It’s amazing the things men will take seriously. Do you believe there is any sense in this talk about a revolution? Harry’s great stunt is the National Service League. As you probably know. Plans for doing without the workers in all the public services and that sort of thing — if it comes to a fight. I liked him. For a time. He’s a very good sort. And handsome. With a voice. Opera tenor blood perhaps — it saves him from being dull. But I can’t go on being in love with a man who’s in love with a Civil War, that nobody in his senses believes will happen.”

Lady Catherine wriggled off her sofa end and went to the window. She felt that Cynthia by dragging in Sir Harry had deliberately spoilt a good conversation. She still had a lot of speculative matter about Sempack in her mind that she would have liked to turn over. She had hardly begun. And the Fearon-Owen affair had got itself a little disjointed and wasn’t any good for talking about.

“These glorious empty days!” she said without any apparent perception of the trees and flowering terraces and sapphire sea below.

She stood against the blue for a time quite still.

She came back into the room and hung a shadowy loveliness over her recumbent hostess.

“If I thought there was a word of truth in this Great Rebellion of the Proletariat I’d be off to England by the night train.”

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