Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 7

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan was quite charming that night. It was to be his last night, he intimated ever so gently, and to-morrow he would make his devious way by local trains to Torre Pellice and his collector friend. For it really seemed there was a friend.

After dinner there was a luminous peacefulness in the world outside and an unusual warmth, the rising moon had pervaded heaven with an intense blue and long slanting bars of dreamy light lifted themselves from the horizontal towards the vertical, slowly and indolently amidst the terraces and trees and bushes. At two or three in the morning when everyone was asleep they would stand erect like sentinel spears.

“I think I could walk a little,” said Mrs. Rylands and they went outside upon the terrace and down the steps to the path that led through the close garden with the tombstone of Amoena Lucina to the broad way that ended at last in a tall jungle of subtly scented nocturnal white flowers. They were tall responsible looking flowers. The moonlight among their petals armed them with little scimitars and bucklers of silver. Among these flowers were moths, great white moths, so that it seemed as if ever and again a couple of blossoms became detached and pirouetted together. Hostess and guest — for Miss Fenimore, with her instinctive tact, did not join them — promenaded this broad dim path, to and fro, and Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan spread his Epicurean philosophy unchallenged before Mrs. Rylands’ enquiring intelligence.

He had been much struck by his own impromptu antithesis of Loveliness to Loneliness and this he now developed as a choice between the sense of beauty and the sense of self. He began apropos of Lady Catherine and her excited interest in present things. “How strange it is that she should incessantly want to do, when all that need be asked of her more than of anyone else is surely that she should simply be.”

He passed easily into personal exposition.

“I treat myself,” he said, “as a piece of bric-à-brac in this wonderful collection, the universe, a piece that differs from the other odd, quaint and amusing pieces, simply because my eye happens to be set in it. Here in this lovely garden, which is so irrelevant to all the needless haste and turmoil of life, I can be perfectly happy. I am perfectly happy — to-night. My chief complaint against existence is that it happens too much and keeps on hurrying by. Before you can appreciate it in the least. I seem always to be trying to pick up exquisite things it drops, with all the crowding next things jostling and thrusting my poor stooping back. Get out of the way there! Eager to trample my treasure before I can even make it a treasure. Like trying to pick up a lost pearl in the middle of the Place de la Concorde. If I could plan my own fate, I would like to live five hundred years in a world in which nothing of any importance ever happened at all. A world like a Chinese plate. I should have a little sinecure perhaps or I should perform some graceful functions in the ceremonies of a religion that had completely lost whatever reality it ever had.”

Mrs. Rylands was not unmindful of her duty to the little green leather book that waited in her sitting-room.

“You do not believe in God?” she asked, to be perfectly clear.

“In loveliness, I believe. And I delight in gods. But in God —— How it would spoil this perfect night, this crystal sky, this silver peace, if one thought it was not precisely the pure loveliness it is! Without an arrière pensée. If one had to turn it all into allegory and guess what it meant! If one even began to suspect that it was just a way of signalling something to us, on the part of a Supreme Personage!”

“But if one took it simply as a present from him?”

“That would be better. Then the only duty in life would be to accept and enjoy. And God would sit over us like some great golden Buddha, smiling, blessing and not minding in the least. Not signifying in the least.”

“That is all very well for happy and pampered people like ourselves, living in houses and gardens like this one.”

“One can start in search of beauty from any starting point and one is still a pilgrim even if one dies by the way.”

“But most human beings start from such frightful starting points. They hardly get a glimpse of beauty.”

“Not sunlight? Not the evening compositions of clouds and sun? The sunsets in Mr. Bennett’s Five Towns are the loveliest in the world. I assure you. The beauty of London Docks again? Or it may be music heard by chance from an open window in the street? Or flowers?”

He shook his head gravely, almost regretfully. “Everyone can find beauty. Think of the beauty of sunlight at the end of a tunnel.”

“I am afraid the world is full of crippled and driven lives. They’re hungry and afraid. What chance of seeing beauty have most poor people — anywhere? Even when it is under their noses. You can’t see beauty with miserable eyes. Beauty does not make happiness; it only comes to the happy. Latterly that has begun to haunt me dreadfully.”

“No,” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan. “That is wrong. Don’t spoil to-night.”

“But they pay for this! Haven’t we a duty to them?”

“Surely as much duty to this night, to leave it serene.”

“I can’t feel like that. I can’t forget this dismal coal strike, the trouble of it, the people out of work, the anxiety, the need in millions of poor worried brains.”

“My dear lady! they chose it. They need not have been born.”

Came a pause as the great modern topic of restriction was faced.

“But it is rather difficult for a child, which doesn’t exist, and isn’t perhaps going to exist for some time, to weigh all the pros and cons and decide ——”

“Its parents and guardians, its godfathers and godmothers wherein it was made, could act for it. It isn’t consulted as a whole so to speak, its constituents are consulted — tacitly. And it has at any rate its own blind Will to Live. Most parentage is inadvertent. What a precious relief is the thought of birth control! The time is coming when it will be practically impossible to tempt anyone to get born except under the most hopeful and favourable circumstances.”

“But meanwhile?”

“I am like the great Mr. Sempack; I refuse to be eaten up by meanwhile.”

“Meanwhile one must live.”

“As calmly as possible. As inactively appreciative as possible. It is just because one must live that one tries to give oneself wholly to a night like this. How rarely do even such favoured ones as we are get an hour so smooth and crystalline as this! The stillness! The chief fault I have with living is the way life rushes us about. Rushes everyone about. What a hurry, what a scurry is history! Think of all the hosts and armies and individuals that have thrust and shoved and whacked their mules and horses along this very Via Aurelia in your garden. Which to-night is just a deep black pit smothered in ivy. Grave of innumerable memories. If we went down there to-night to that old paved track I wonder if we should see their ghosts! Romans and Carthaginians, Milanese and Burgundians, French and Italians, kings and bishops and conquerors and fugitives. It would be a fit punishment for all their hurry and violence to find them there. It would serve them right for all their wicked inattention to loveliness, to put them back again upon their paces and make them repeat them over and over, over and over, night after night, century after century. . . . ”

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan was smitten by a bright idea. “Perhaps someday some later Einstein will take out patents and contrive a way of slowing down time. Without affecting our perceptions. Then we shall not be everlastingly hurried on by strikes and wars and passions and meal-times and bed-times. With the newspapers rustling and flying through the air like witches in a storm.

“But I chatter on and on, my dear Mrs. Rylands. You set me talking. And I am trying to forget the Social Revolution now in progress and how we are all to be swept away. Or else saved by Captain Fearon-Owen, was it? and Lady Catherine. Whichever is the worse.

“Before we go in, may we just walk up that path above the house to the little bridge over the gorge beyond the herbarium and the laboratory? Do you know it? By night? There the hillside goes up very steeply and everything, the trees and even the rocks, seems to be drawn up too in a kind of magical unanimity. You must see it by moonlight. An immense flamboyance of black and white. Stupendous shadows. I discovered it last night as I prowled about the garden before turning it. It streams up and up and up, and over it brood the wet black precipices of the mountains, endlessly vertical, with little threads of silver. The eye follows it up. It is like all the Gothic in the world multiplied by ten. It is like listening to some tremendous crescendo. Farther than this he cannot go, you say, and he goes farther. At the top the precipices fairly overhang. One stands on the bridge at the foot of it, minute, insignificant, overawed. . . .

“By daylight it is nothing very wonderful. Hardly anything at all.”

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