Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 5

Mrs. Rylands came down out of her privacies in time for lunch, but lunch was a little delayed by the absence of Lady Catherine and Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan. Catherine had flitted off to Ventimiglia. A telegram and some letters had awaited her in the hall, Bombaccio explained, something had excited her very much and off she had gone forthwith in the second car, sweeping up Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan on her way. She had been given the second car because in defiance of all instructions to the contrary, Bombaccio kept the first car for his mistress. He would always do that to the end of things. Lady Catherine was coming back, she was sure to come back, said Bombaccio, but Mrs. Rylands was not to wait lunch.

Mrs. Rylands found Miss Fenimore all alone in the hall reading Saturday’s English newspapers. “Nothing seems settled about the miners,” said Miss Fenimore, handing over The Times, and neither lady glanced at the French and Italian papers at all. Mrs. Rylands found the name of an old school friend among the marriages.

Miss Fenimore said she had been studying botany all the morning. Her hostess asked what book she had been using.

“Oh! I haven’t got a book yet,” said Miss Fenimore. “I’ve just been walking about the garden you know and reading some of the labels, so as to get a General Idea first. One can get books anywhere. . . . I’ve always wanted to know something about botany.”

Then with an immense éclat Lady Catherine returned from Ventimiglia to proclaim the Social Revolution in England. She came in trailing sunlight and conflict with her, a beautiful voice, rich gestures and billowing streamers, Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan holding his own, such as it was, on her outskirts.

“My dear,” she cried. “It’s come! The Impossible has happened. I must go to England to-night — if the Channel boats are still running.”

“What has come?” asked Mrs. Rylands.

“The General Strike. Proclaimed at midnight. They’ve dared to fight us! Haven’t you seen the papers?”

“There’s nothing in the English papers,” said Mrs. Rylands and became aware of Miss Fenimore rustling the French sheets behind her. “Grève générale,” came Miss Fenimore in confirmation. “And a long leader all in italics, I see; Nos pauvres voisins! Now the turn of England has come.”

Bombaccio appeared and took Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan’s hat and cane.

“Don’t wait lunch for me,” said Lady Catherine, sweeping across the hall to the staircase. “I’ll be down in a minute. I’ll have to tell Soames to pack. This has stirred me like great music.”

“Lunch in five minutes,” said Mrs. Rylands to Bombaccio’s enquiring pause and turned to the Italian papers. The General Strike? Because of the miners. But Mr. Baldwin had been quite determined to settle it, and the owners and the government and the miners’ representatives had been holding conference after conference. In the most friendly spirit. Was her picture of it all wrong? What was Philip doing away there? And Colonel Bullace and his braves? And all the people one knew? How skimpy the news in these foreign papers was, the important news, the English news!

Mrs. Rylands was still dazed by the sudden change in the aspect of things in general and of Lady Catherine in particular when the party had assembled at the lunch table. Lady Catherine dominated the situation. “Letters of mine went astray. To Rapallo. Or I should have known before. How amazing it is! How wonderful and stirring!”

“One thing I observe,” began Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan, but Lady Catherine was following her own thoughts and submerged him.

“To think that they have dared!” she cried. “I shall go back as a volunteer — to serve as a nurse, a helper, anything. Captain Fearon-Owen says ——”

“You have heard from him?” asked Mrs. Rylands.

“Two letters. They came together. From Rapallo. And a summons — by wire. Everyone is wanted now, every sort of help. The printers have struck. There are no papers. The railwaymen are out! Not an omnibus in London. For all we know, while we sit here, all the Russians and Yids in Whitechapel may be marching under the red flag to Westminster!”

“You really think so?” said Mrs. Rylands and tried to imagine it.

“There is one thing I think about this business,” Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan tried.

“I wonder if they have machine-guns,” the lady flowed over him. “Three months ago Captain Fearon-Owen wanted a search through the East End for munitions. But nobody would listen to him. And he always said the Royal Mint was much too far to the east for safety. There are always grenadiers there — just a few. They go along the Embankment every morning. A mere handful. Against hundreds of thousands.”

“Like the poor dear Swiss Guard in Paris,” Miss Fenimore shivered. “The Lion of Lucerne.”

“Months ago, Captain Fearon-Owen made a plan. I read it and laughed at it. I thought it was extravagant. I suppose everyone thought it was extravagant. But he had foreseen all this.”

“Foreseen what, my dear?” asked Mrs. Rylands.

“This rising. He was for evacuating the Mint. And having naval forces ready to throw into the Docks right away.”

“Rough on the naval forces,” Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan allowed himself to murmur to some new potatoes.

“The Docks are full of food,” said Lady Catherine, pursuing her strategic meditations.

“There is one aspect of this business,” Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan tried again softly, addressing himself to a freshly acquired potato.

But Lady Catherine was too intent on battle to heed his attempted interpolation. The poor little potato never learnt that one aspect of the business before it vanished from the world. Its end was silence. Did it meet truth and knowledge in those warm darknesses? Who can tell?

“The main danger,” Lady Catherine had to explain, “is the North. Captain Fearon-Owen does not think very much of the Midlands. Labour there is too diversified for unity and too soundly English for insurrection. But the Tyne is a black spot. And the Clyde. Red as it can be. And there’s no reckoning with South Wales. A Welsh mob could be a very ugly mob, excitable and cruel. Especially when it sings. If they chanced on some song like the Marseillaise! Nothing could stop them.”

“You talk as though there was an insurrection, Catherine,” said Mrs. Rylands. “But the French papers speak only of a strike. Isn’t that rather a more passive thing?”

“A General Strike,” said Lady Catherine informingly, and there were trumpets in her voice. She looked like Britannia after putting on her helmet and drawing her sword. “A General Strike is an insurrection.”

It was plain that in the absence of the other patriots, lunch was going to be a solo. A cowed feeling came over Mrs. Rylands. She had always felt that someday Catherine would up and cow her and now that day had come. Bombaccio too looked cowed, as cowed as Bombaccio could look. There was no checking Lady Catherine by offering her vegetables. One had a feeling all through the lunch as though one was eating in church. One could not fight it down. But what a marvel Catherine was, what a chameleon! For days she had been a shadow and echo of Mr. Sempack, a goad in that excellent man’s loins. Now it was as if a record had been whisked off a gramophone and replaced by another, of an entirely different character. One heard the British patriot marching to battle and saw a forest of waving Union Jacks, one heard the lumbering artillery, the jingle-jangle of cavalry, the loud purring of tanks defiling into industrial towns at dawn. One heard the threatening whirr of aeroplanes dispersing dangerous meetings in public squares. And amidst the storm, and over the storm and through the storm one heard of Captain Fearon-Owen.

“Captain Fearon-Owen says there must be no weakness. There must be no faltering. Not even in the highest quarters.”

“But surely——!” protested Miss Fenimore.

“The King is too kind,” said Lady Catherine.

Then reflectively: “Of course I must fly from Paris. At Dover there will be no trains. I shall telegraph from Mentone to Le Bourget to keep a place.

“Flying over England in revolt. Watching them striking and striking — far below. Dreadful! — but exciting!”

Afterwards Mrs. Rylands tried to gather together and preserve some of the handsomer thistles that thrust themselves up through the jungle heat of Lady Catherine’s mood. But she found much of it was lost for ever, gone like tropical vegetation in the moment of its flourishing.

The government she learnt might falter — or some of it. Mr. Baldwin was an ineffective man. Captain Fearon-Owen was not sure of Worthington Evans; he would have far preferred Winston at the War Office. Jix at the Home Office was a godsend however. He was truly strong. He never reprieved. Quiet, almost nervous in appearance, a slender man with a round boyish face — but he never never reprieved. Practically. Well — impatient at what seemed detraction of her idol —“once perhaps.” But vigorous action he was sure to support. Occasions might arise, said Captain Fearon-Owen, when it would be necessary to “take over” initiative from “falterers in positions of responsibility.”

“You cannot always be sending back for instructions,” said Lady Catherine darkly.

“Now it has come,” said Lady Catherine, “I am glad it has come,” and sat still for some moments with a quiet smile on her handsome animated face.

“There is a little point I have noticed,” Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan reflected, with the nutcrackers in his hand — for by that time they had got to dessert. “I have observed ——”

Lady Catherine was not heeding him. “It makes one feel frightfully Nietszchean,” she said. “Suppose England too has to fall back on a dictatorship!”

“I suppose,” said Mrs. Rylands with an innocence that seemed almost too obvious to her, “that would have to be Captain Fearon-Owen?”

But Lady Catherine was exalted above all ridicule. “Anyhow it was he who saw it clearest,” she said and bestirred herself for the chasing of Soames.

“Mr. Sempack,” Mrs. Rylands began, but her guest did not heed that once so interesting name.

“Leadership,” said Lady Catherine, standing up splendidly, “is the supreme gift of the gods.”

She went off to pack for civil warfare like a child going to be dressed for a treat.

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