Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 8

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan had scarcely gone from Casa Terragena before Mr. Sempack reappeared. Mrs. Rylands had walked part of the way up to the road gate with Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan, and after wishing him farewell she had turned off to a seat beneath some Japanese medlars where there were long orderly beds of violets like the planche of a Grasse violet grower, and a level path of pebble mosaic that led round the headland towards the rocky portals of the Caatinga. She had brought the green leather book with her, because his talk overnight had set her thinking. She found herself in the closest sympathy and the completest intellectual disagreement with the things he had said.

Just as she felt that at the core of things was courage, so she had an irrational conviction that, properly seen, the general substance of things was beauty. To Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan’s craving to lead a life of pure appreciation she found a temperamental response. She could quite easily relax into that pose. But also she perceived something selective, deliberate and narrowing in his attitude. He reminded her of those people, now happily becoming old-fashioned, who will not look at a lovely landscape except through a rolled-up newspaper or some such frame. Or of people who cannot admire flowers without picking them. He seemed to think that the appreciation of beauty was a kind of rescue work; to take the lovely thing and trim it up and carry it off. But she thought it was a matter of recognition and acceptance. So while in practice he was for sealing up himself and his sensations in a museum case as it were with beauty, she was for lying open to the four winds of heaven, sure that beauty would come and remain. And while he posed as a partisan of beauty even against the idea of God, her idea of an ever deepening and intensifying realisation of the beauty in things was inseparably mingled with the conception of discovering God. He and she could perceive the poignant delight of a star suddenly flashing through forest leaves with a complete identity of pleasure and a complete divergence of thought. And so while art for him was quintessence, for her it was only a guide.

But while she was still struggling with this difficult disentanglement of assents and dissents that her analysis of Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan required, and before she had made a single entry in the green leather book as a result of these exercises, she became aware of Mr. Sempack descending the winding path that was the main route of communication between the gates and the house. Beside him a requisitioned under-gardener bore his knapsack and valise and answered such questions and agreed with such opinions as the great Utopologist’s Italian permitted him to make.

It was Mr. Sempack. And he was changed.

Recognition was followed by astonishment. He was greatly changed. He was different altogether. More erect — rampant. No longer had he the quality of rocky scenery; he had the quality of rocky scenery that had arisen and tossed its mane and marched. “Tossing its mane” mixed oddly with rocky scenery, but that was how it came to her. His hair had all been thrust and combed back from his forehead, violently, so that the effect of his head, considered largely, had become leonine; he lifted his roughly handsome profile and seemed to snuff the air. He had no hat! Hitherto he and his hat had been inseparable out of doors but now he neither wore nor carried one. What could he have done with his hat? Moreover his cravat had suffered some exchange, had become large and loose and as it were, it was too far off to be certain, black silk, tied with the extravagance natural to a Latin man of genius, but otherwise remarkable and improper. And he walked erect with a certain conscious rectitude and large confident strides and assisted himself with a bold stout walking stick. Mrs. Rylands could not remember that stick; she had an impression he had gone off with an umbrella. At any rate he had gone off with the appearance of having an umbrella. She became eager to scrutinise this renascent Sempack closelier. She stood up for the moment to give her voice play and make herself more conspicuous. “Mr. Sempack,” she cried, “Mr. Sem-pack!”

He heard. He turned eagerly. Just for a moment a shade of disappointment may have betrayed itself in his bearing. He hesitated, waved the stick, glanced down towards the house and then after a word or so with his garden man, submitted to his obvious fate and ascended the steps to her.

“You’ve come back to us,” she said, so giving him the very latest news as he approached.

“I’ve had a splendid time among the hills,” he answered in that fine large voice of his. “How endlessly beautiful and unexpected France can be! And what lonely places! How are you?”

He was now standing in front of her.

“I’m better and happier, thanks to some good advice I had.”

“If it was of service,” he said. “Yes, you look ever so much better. Indeed you look radiantly well. How are the others?”

“Scattered for the most part.”

He did not seem to mind about that. “Where is Lady Catherine?” he asked.

As he spoke he looked at the cypresses and magnolias that masked most of the house from him and then up and down the slopes about them for the lovely figure he sought. How easy a thing, Mrs. Rylands reflected, it was to make a man over confident. He’d gone off to make up his mind about Lady Catherine, it was only too evident, and here he was back with his mind made up, made up indeed altogether, and quite oblivious to the fact that Lady Catherine had gone on living at her own natural pace, during his interval of indecision. He became aware of a pause in answering his enquiry. His eyes came back to the face of his hostess. (Surely he had not been clipping those once too discursive eyebrows! But he had!) She tried to impart her information as though it was of no deep interest to either of them.

“Lady Catherine,” she said, “has gone to England.”

Mr. Sempack was a child when it came to concealing his feelings. “Gone to England!” he cried. “I was convinced she would stay here.”

“She was restless,” said Mrs. Rylands.

“But I was restless!” protested Mr. Sempack, opening vast gulfs of implication.

“She went yesterday.”

“But why has she gone? Why should she go to England?”

“When the news of the strike came it lit her up like a rocket and off she went fizz-bang,” said Mrs. Rylands.

“But why?”

“To save the country.”

“But this strike,” said Mr. Sempack, “is nothing at all. Just political nonsense. Why should she go to England?”

She found her respect for Mr. Sempack collapsing like a snowman before a bonfire. She ceased to scrutinise his improvements. “I’m not responsible for Lady Catherine,” she said and smoothed the nice back of the green leather book. “She’s gone.”

It seemed to dawn upon Mr. Sempack that he was forgetting his manners. He had stood in front of her without the slightest intention of staying beside her. Now he gave one last reproachful glance down the hill towards the paths, terraces, lawns, windows and turrets where Lady Catherine ought to have been waiting for him, and then came slowly and sat down beside his hostess. The first exhilaration of his bearing had already to a large extent evaporated.

“Forgive me,” he said. “I quite expected to find Lady Catherine here. We had a sort of argument together. It had excited me. But, as you say, she has gone. And the American gentleman with the hyphenated name? Who had an effect of being manicured all over. What was he called? Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan?”

“Went this morning. To Torre Pellice above Turin.”

“And Miss Fenimore?”

“Is with us still.”

“I’m so surprised she’s gone. You see I don’t attach any great importance to this General Strike in England. So that I can’t imagine anyone going off — a woman particularly. . . . I may be mistaken. . . . ”

“It has stopped all the English newspapers,” said Mrs. Rylands. “And most of the English trains. It has thrown millions of people out of employment. There is talk of famine through the interruption of food supplies.”

“An acute attack of Sundays in the place of the usual week. But why should it affect Lady Catherine?”

It was not Mrs. Rylands’ business to answer that.

“Are you sure she went on account of the General Strike?”

Mrs. Rylands had serious thoughts of losing her temper. “That was the reason she gave,” she said, in the tone of one who loses interest in a topic. But Mr. Sempack had a habit of pursuing his own line of thought with a certain regardlessness for other people.

“She may have gone to demonstrate her point of view in our argument,” he surmised. Mrs. Rylands, being in better possession of the facts, thought it a very foolish surmise but she offered no comment.

“The matter at issue between us,” said Mr. Sempack, prodding up the pathway with the stout stick, “had of course, extraordinarily far-reaching implications. Reduced to its simplest terms it was this, Is the current surface of things a rational reality?”

Mrs. Rylands wanted to laugh. She regarded Mr. Sempack’s profile, gravely intent on spoiling her excellent path. She was filled with woman’s instinctive pity for man. Every man is a moody child, she thought, every man in the world. But the children must not be spoilt. “So that was why you went off for a walking tour?” she remarked, intelligently.

“I thought we both needed to think over our differences,” he said.

“And you still don’t think — what is it? — that the current surface of things is — whatever it is?”

“No,” he said and excavated a quite large chunk of earth and smashed it to sandy fragments in front of his boots. “But I suppose this flight to England is to show me that the issues between us are not false issues but real, and that while I dream and theorise, she can play a part. . . . I wish she hadn’t gone. There is nothing happening in England at all that is not perfectly preposterous. Utterly preposterous. Political life in England becomes more and more like Carnival.”

He shrugged his shoulders. The large tie became a little askew. “Carnival without a police. Well — that is political life everywhere nowadays. . . . ”

As this was manifestly not the subject under discussion between them a silence of perhaps half a minute supervened. Then Mr. Sempack bestirred himself.

“She has gone,” he said, “just because she likes Carnival. And that is the truth of the matter.”

He glanced sideways at his hostess as if he hoped she would contradict him.

But she did nothing of the sort. She reflected and bore her witness with a considered effect. “Mr. Sempack,” she said, “I know Catherine. And that is the truth of the matter.”

“I thought it was.”

His bones did move about under his skin, because they were doing so now. He dug industriously at the path through another long silence. “Forgive my moodiness and my rudeness. And my confidences. My almost involuntary confidences. As you know perfectly well already, I am in the ridiculous position of having fallen in love with Lady Catherine; and it isn’t any the less disorganising for being utterly absurd. It has made me, I perceive, absurd. To fall in love, as I have done, is — to reverberate melodrama. It is as unreal as an opium dream and one knows it is unreal. Yet one clings with a certain obstinacy. . . . I expected —— Heaven knows what I expected! But that is no reason, is it? why I should come and set myself down here and interrupt your writing in that extremely pretty book of yours and dig large holes in your path.”

“The paths were made for man and not man for the paths,” said Mrs. Rylands. “I wish all my gardeners worked as you have done for the last few minutes. I am sorry for what has happened. Catherine is one of those people who ought not to be allowed about loose.”

“I may go to England,” he said after he had digested that. “I am preposterously dislocated. I do not know what to do.”

“But in England, won’t the melodrama lie in wait for you?”

“Perhaps I wish it would. At present, my mind and my thoughts — are just swirling about. I can’t go on writing. I might of course go into Italy.”

“Meanwhile stay here. For a day or so anyhow. There are all sorts of things I would like to hear you talk about. If you could talk about them. And this garden has a place for almost any mood. No one shall worry you. If I dared I would ask you about a score of things that perplex me.”

“You are very kind to suffer me,” he said.

She shook her head and smiled and then stood up.

“I think you have done enough to my path this morning,” she said. “Look at it!”

He made some clumsy and ineffective attempts to repair the mischief of his immense hands with his immense feet, and then came hurrying after her down the steps.

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