You can't be too careful, by H. G. Wells

Chapter 2

Mrs Humbelay Marvels

SO it was Edward Albert Tewler began his earthly career, rather overweight and with a silver mug to his mouth, at a date so auspicious that when the World War of 1914 — 18 broke out he was four years too young to take an active part in it. Few of us could imagine a more fortunate beginning. Yet he missed a father’s guidance, and — in 1914 — his mother also passed over to that better world, where insurance is unnecessary — all our dear lost Dickybirds wait our coming, and as for the weary, the weary are at rest.

I have told my tale but ill if I have failed to convey that if this most natural and excellent of mothers had any fault at all in her, it was a certain disposition to excessive solicitude, and, associated with that and integral to that, an element of fear. I will not discuss whether these qualities were innate or the infection of her generation, for that would be a breach of the undertaking given in the Preface. She was not afraid herself, but her protective motherliness extended to everyone and everything that appertained to her. And it came to a focus upon young Albert Edward, who was always central to her thoughts and dreams and plans and speeches. She was not you must understand an unhappy woman. She lived a life of intensely concentrated anxious happiness. There was always some new menace to excite her.

Her Treasure had to be shielded from every harm. He had to be watched over and trained to recoil from every form of danger. His shielding was her sole topic of conversation. She welcomed every new threat to her darling; she sought ideas for fresh precautions. She would ask the most churlish to advise her, and remained poised expectant while they did their best to keep their replies within the still very narrow limits of early Edwardian good manners. Their real ideas about what ought to be done to Edward Albert they muttered when she was out of earshot. But one old curmudgeon was driven to say: “Let him be run over. Let him. I implore you. He won’t do it twice. That’ll teach him if nothing else will.”

Of course he could not know how dear Richard had been killed. Still it was heartless. . . .

She made her solicitude the justification for an unrelenting pursuit of lecturers, teachers, doctors, and the minor clergy.

“No harm shall come near him,” she said. “Only tell me.”

Earnest preachers hid in vestries, peeping slyly at her until she went away, and hygienic experts, after giving the most edifying lectures and passing lightly over the more difficult parts, escaped through the most undignified and unhygienic exits to avoid this importunate widow’s demand for precisions. She subscribed to numerous periodicals wherein

“Aunt Jane” or “Dorothy Wisdom” advised and answered readers’ questions, when a coupon was enclosed. She asked for all the information that was fit to print, and got it — time after time.

But there are many dangers and riddles that centre upon the upbringing of a solitary male child that cannot be solved in public print, and here Mrs Tewler was much beholden to intimate, shame-faced but extremely interesting talks with various people endowed with a rich store of obsessions and inaccurate but moving information, who would talk to her in undertones, with circumlocutions, metaphors and gestures and an obvious mutuality of relief. There was, for example, Mrs Humbelay, acquired at the Baptist Social Afternoons, who would come to tea, or entertain Mrs Tewler in her own modest but extremely over-furnished apartment. She said very little at the Socials, but she listened with an appreciative tranquility, and she was very helpful, bringing little delicacies and making buttered toast.

These Socials were becoming an increasingly important factor in Mrs Tewler’s life. Now there was no Dickybird to whom she could tell her troubles in the evening she turned more definitely to the little close Baptist community. Behind the blue door they were Strict and Particular and she agreed. She could talk about her devotion to her Darling and about her ill-health with a reasonable reciprocity. And in particular there was this Mrs Humbelay.

Mrs Humbelay had been and still was an extremely fine woman, and everything was fine and large about her, her things particularly, except her rooms, which were small, and her voice, which was infinitesimal, a whisper at the best of times, and an inaudible wheeze, in which facial expression had to come to its assistance. She had not very much facial expression beyond a certain astonishment at the things she was saying.

She had left her village school in a state of innocent simplicity to become under-housemaid to Miss Pooter–Bayton, who was then living under the protection and in the household of the scandalous Duke of Dawes, the sixth Duke. There was some pretence that Miss Pooter–Bayton had a husband somewhere and that her relations to the Duke were Platonic. But when the under-housemaid asked what Platonic was, she got only mirthful and perplexing replies. She gave way to wonder, and open-eyed and breathless wonder became her permanent attitude to life. Fate had decided that she should see the entirely disreputable side of what used to be called the Fin de Siècle. She was a young, simple, rather pretty, acquiescent creature, and all sorts of things happened to her. She was never greatly shocked. She wept at nothing; she laughed at nothing. Fate pitched her about and she marvelled. “The things they do!” she said.

The things they did to her!

It wasn’t right, she knew, but apparently there was no right, really. Everybody told lies about what they did, making things out to be worse or better as the mood took them. That gave her a sense of standards. The Duke’s house steward, who had fallen in love with her wide-eyed credulity, suddenly married her. It seemed rather unnecessary after all that had happened to her, but he knew what he was up to. “We are going to run a private hotel down in Cornwall for the Duke and his sort,” he said, “and fine times we’re going to have there,” and so she acquired that houseful of large furniture of which the remnant still clung to her, Except the pictures. She got rid of all that stuff. Fine times they had for a bit, and then he turned against her. There was a great Fin de Siècle scandal in London and he seemed to change. He said one day that she was getting too fat for endurance and that a cow could make love better than she did. “I do my best,” she said. “If only you’d tell me what you want me to do. . . . ”

Then suddenly the Fin de Siècle world fled abroad in a great flutter like starlings. “You run this place, my dear, until things blow over and I come back, and put by all the money for me,” he said, and he left her, still marvelling but bankrupt, in a great shady hotel that had figured in the case so conspicuously that nobody now would come near it. She extricated herself as well as she could, and came to London; the works of art she sold to furtive dealers and private collectors; and, having always had a subdued craving for conventional standards and a virtuous life, she joined the congregation of the smaller Baptist Church up Camden Hill, the Particular Baptist Church, the one with the blue doorway. She disliked smoking and detested alcohol, and the Baptist atmosphere suited her admirably. She tried to thin herself by avoiding almost every sort of food except cakes and buttered toast at tea-time, and little snacks in between meals. Yet every day she grew larger of body and shorter of breath, and her look of faint perplexity increased. As you may understand, she felt a great need to talk to someone about the fantastic whirl of improper revelations amidst which she had been spinning all her life. And you will realise what a godsend she was to Mr Tewler, and what a godsend Mrs Tewler was to her.

Yet if only she had not had that trick of letting her voice die out with her lips still active but inaudible, and staring you with those innocent, earnest, inquiring blue eyes of hers, Mrs Tewler’s ideas might have been more explicit,

“Sometimes I can’t make head or tail of it,” Mrs. Tewler would complain, but really it was the tail she lost. She wanted to know, for Dearest One’s sake, what were all those dreadful things that lay in wait for the unguarded young, underneath the sunken tail and the raised eyebrows. She wanted particulars and she got this sort of thing.

“Sometimes I think it’s the good ones really make the bad ones. For after all, you see. . . . ”

“There isn’t so very much that they can do with themselves. . . . ”

“Well, my dear, it isn’t as though we was octopuses, is it? all legs and arms and things. . . . ”

“His Grace had a sort of joking way of saying, ‘All the world’s a stage, my girl’. . . . ”

Mrs Tewler went to the Public Library afterwards and with the librarian’s assistance looked that up in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations:

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. . . . ”

Nothing in that. It was a mystery.

“All they want to do is something queer and awful. Would it matter — whether it was upside down or round about, if the good people didn’t make such a fuss about it? I could never find anything so wonderful. . . . ”

“But good people say, ‘This is a sin’, and that is terrible. . . . ”

“What is — exactly?”

“Doing all these things. And so they make laws against them and all that, and it seems to give them dignity, so to to speak, as though they mattered. Why should they matter? For instance, is there really any great harm. . . . ”

Lost again!

Most people like breaking laws, just to show they aren’t to be put upon. If they’d been left alone, they’d just have done this or that and forgotten about it. Everybody does things somewhen —”

“But they are sins,” cried Mrs Tewler. “And I think it’s all terrible. And wicked!”

“Maybe you’re right. They call it Original Sin, It seems the most unoriginal sort of sin possible to me. Why if for example. . . . ”

“But someone must teach them these dreadful things!”

“They get together. Or they get alone. And there’s nothing else to distract them. And before you know where you are you find. . . . ”

“But if one keeps one’s little boy away from nasty little boys and girls, and watches over his reading and never leaves him alone until he’s sound asleep —”

“There’s dreams,” said the wise woman. “There’s fancies that come from nowhere at all. Very likely you’ve forgotten your own early dreams and fancies. Most people do. Or they wouldn’t make such a fuss. I haven’t. Why, long before I went into service, I used to sleep with the curate and my elder brother and a boy I once saw bathing —”

“My dear Mrs Humbelay!”

“Only in dreams. Have you forgotten all that about yourself? Well”— down went the voice —“and I used to imagine myself. . . . ” Mrs Tewler could get nothing of it.

“Oh! Oh!” she cried. “My Boy isn’t like that. My Boy can’t be like that He just sleeps like a little harmless lamb. . . . ”

“Maybe he’s different. Still I’m only telling you what I’ve come across in life. I can’t make out what it’s all about. . . .

“It’s a great relief to talk to an understanding woman like yourself. I’ve thought of putting all my troubles plainly and simply to Mr Burlap. What I’ve been through. What I’ve seen. But you see he doesn’t know anything of what I’ve been, really. He thinks I’m just a comfortable respectable widow. I wouldn’t like him to turn against me . . . ”

“I don’t think you’d be wise to tell him.”

“Nor me. Still, what’s the answer to it all? We’ve got all these desires and impulses, we’re told, so as to have children.

So you may say. But they don’t lead to children, Mrs Tewler. They lead right away from them. Why, I ask you, my dear, should Nature dispose a man — well now, for example, to. . . . ”

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