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

Chapter 6

Mr Chamble Pewter

MR CHAMBLE PEWTER, the man of thirty-five who had taken the room of Mr Frankincense, was a great reader of books. He liked old ripe rich books, and whenever he heard talk of a new book, it was his practice, he said, to read an old one. Reading and talking about reading, constituted his particular form of self-assertion. The current world might go its own way and invariably that way was despicable; and while Edward Albert dreamt of impressing Doober’s by departing to unknown entertainment in “faultless evening dress”, Mr Chamble Pewter got the same desired effect by producing a “well-thumbed” Horace. The flowering of Bloomsbury was yet to come, and he had still to face the arrogance of a movement that was at once congenial and contemporary. So what he said and did about Mr T.S. Eliot and Mr Aldous Huxley, is unfortunately outside the range of this story.

Edward Albert was as impressed by this book-reading as he was meant to be, and he was gratified to find Mr Chamble Pewter not unwilling to talk to him. It was necessary to Mr Chamble Pewter to talk to some one; he could not talk at large and contentiously because that would have been vulgar, but he found Edward Albert extremely docile. Edward Albert did not always get the drift of what Mr Chamble Pewter said, but since they talked in undertones it was effective to sit and nod as though you did. “I am afraid,” Mr Chamble Pewter would admit after some particularly dark saying,

“I must plead guilty to a sense of humour. I don’t know how I could get along in this absurd world without it.”

Sometimes it seemed to Edward Albert that this sense of humour was very closely akin to that useful sceptical phrase, “I don’t find,” which was spreading through the world, but he was not sure enough of the parallelism ever to use it to Mr Chamble Pewter.

One particular target for Mr Chamble Pewter’s confidential asides was a blond young American student full of enthusiasm for what the sound conservative instincts of Edward Albert and Mr Chamble Pewter convinced them were the meretricious and unstable inventions and discoveries of modern science. His form of self-assertion was informative. His formula was, “You haven’t an idea!” For a time you could hardly open your mouth at Doober’s without his saying,

“Oh, but that’s all changed now.” Did one talk of music? He announced that for the first time pure sounds could be produced, that new and wonderful instruments would presently replace the traditional orchestras. In a little while the “old music” would sound smudgy and limited, pitiful. We should listen to the records in amazement. There would have to be a complete reorchestration of any of the old music that was worth while. . . . Did one talk of the cinema, which genteel people were beginning to recognise might be in its vulgar way, funny, what with Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford? At once our young man was talking of the sound and colour and solidity which were presently to invade the films. “Utter absurdity!” whispered Mr Chamble Pewter. “They never know when to stop. Laughable, it is.”

Then about flying? He talked of planes that would fly the Atlantic, carry gigantic bombs to Berlin, go to the very top of the air, go round the world in less than twenty-four hours, and then where will you be? Chamble Pewter caught Edward Albert’s eye. “And the moon?” he whispered. Particularly foolish sounded the young man’s talk upon those mad notions of psychoanalysis, relativity and the new missing links between men and the apes.

“A saucer full of rusty scraps of bone,” said Mr Chamble Pewter. “And so, good-bye to God!”

“The young American seemed to scent the evasive antagonism of Mr Chamble Pewter and trailed his coat. At last he provoked a skirmish and got the worst of it.

He was going on in his exasperating way, spoiling their dinners and trampling over their minds with some pretended find of another “human ancestor” from Rhodesia. “But surely,” remarked Mr Chamble Pewter in that mild, destructive voice of his, “you are being a little old-fashioned. This talk about human ancestors. Isn’t it what we used to call Darwinism and all that?”

“None the worse for that,” said the young American.

“But you are always being so very modern. Forgive me if I smile — I have rather a sense of humour — but surely you know Darwinism was completely exploded years and years ago?”

“First I’ve heard of that,” said the young American, rather taken aback.

“We’re none of us omniscient — even the youngest of us,” said Mr Chamble Pewter.

“But how do you mean exploded?”

“What everybody means by exploded. Blown to pieces. Nothing left of him.”

“But who exploded him?”

“Surely you know that! But I suppose we all have our limitations. Some professor at Montpellier — I forget his name — something about the birds and reptiles. A complete exposure. You should look into it. These disputes have never interested me very much, I must confess. But there it is.

“But you don’t mean to tell me that,” the young man began. “No decent zoologist has done anything to question die fact of organic evolution and the survival or extinction of species by natural selection since Darwin broached the idea. Of course in minor details, in accounting for variations, for instance. . . . ”

Mr Chamble Pewter retained an expression of serene derision. “Since first I heard of it, I have never doubted for a moment that this idea of Evolution was utterly absurd. So why haggle about details?”

“Did you examine the evidence?”

“No,” said Mr Chamble Pewter. The young American seemed to be at a loss for breath.

“I may be old-feshioned and all that,” said Mr Chamble Pewter in the pause,” but I happen to prefer the Bible story of a creation, to Mr Darwin’s curious idea that a large ape came down a tree, went bald all over and wandered about until he met a female gorilla to whom, by some strange accident, the same impulse had occurred, a very very remarkable coincidence if you come to think of it, and that together they started the human race. I find that improbable to the pitch of absurdity.”

“It is. It’s a caricature. But have you ever looked into the evidence? Do you know how the case really stands?”

“Why should I? I believe with most rational people that this world was Created, and man and woman came straight from the hand of God, made in his image. How else could the world come about? How did it begin? We have age-long traditions, that great literature we call the Bible. I ask you plainly. Do you deny the Creation? That is to say, do you deny the Creator?”

The young man felt the chill of unpopularity about him.

“I deny the Creation,” he said.

“Then you deny your Creator?”

“Well if you must have it — yes.”

A breath of reprobation ruffled the gathering.

“But you mustn’t say that!” said the little lady in mittens. “You really mustn’t say that.”

“No, you can’t say that,” said Edward Albert decisively.

Mrs Doober murmured ambiguously as became her position, and even her down-trodden and practically negligible niece was faintly audible in reprobation.

“Forgive me if I smile,” said Mr Chamble Pewter. “But I have this confounded sense of humour of mine. I suppose it’s really a sense of proportion. But now I’m speaking out, let me say plainly that you scientific people would be insufferable if your ideas had anything like the importance you claim for them. Imagine it. Think of the churches, the cathedrals, the countless good works, the martrydoms, the saints, the vast legacy of art and beauty, the music drawing its inspiration from the divine fount, for all music to begin with was religious, the institution of family life, purity, love, chivalry, kingship, loyalty, the crusades, Benedictine, Chartreuse, the wines of France, hospitals, charities, the whole rich fabric of Christian life. Strip it from us and what is there left of us? You would leave us shivering in the void. Yes, Sir, the void. A world of mechanical apes. Because a few crazy old gentlemen have found some bones and had fancies about them. And they don’t agree even among themselves. Take that queer paper Nature and what do you find? Science perpetually contradicting itself. . . . ”

“But —!” The young American had attempted to cut in once or twice upon the flow of eloquence. But every time the new little lady boarder with the mittens had intervened with infinite gentleness and infinite insolence. “Do please let him finish first,” she said. “Please.”

“Tell me when you’ve finished,” said the altogether too modern young man.

“It’s a question of whether you are finished,” said Mr Chamble Pewter, and ceased abruptly.

And this arrogant young man had nothing to say. He had asserted himself over Doober’s too confidently, and now he found Doober’s solid against him. Not a soul had he captured. Even the blonde Miss Pooley, who had seemed at times to listen to him with interest, gave no sign. “Well,” he said. “I never met such ignorance. Here are ideas that are revolutionising the whole human outlook, and you not only don’t know a Thing about them, but you don’t want to know a Thing about them.”

Mr Chamble Pewter drank his coffee and regarded the young American with a quizzical expression. He put down his cup. “Yes,” he said. “We don’t want to know a Thing about them.”

“I give it up,” said the young American. Mr Chamble Pewter shrugged his shoulders and a profound silence ensued.

“Such a lovely black cat jumped on to my window-sill just before dinner,” said the little widow lady with the mittens, relieving the tension.

“Black Toms are said to be very lucky,” said Mrs Doober.

The arsenal of modern ideas got up slowly and thoughtfully and departed to his own room. The discussion was not resumed.

Later Mrs Doober heard him go out and slam the door behind him as loudly as it could be slammed, and she knew from years of experience that he was going out to find another boarding-house.

[Oh! If only people wouldn’t get into these arguments! It had happened before several times. And he was punctual in payment, quiet, gave no trouble.]

It was wonderful to Edward Albert. He was overcome by a wave of discipleship. It was just what he would have said and done himself — if it had occurred to him to say or do anything of the sort. He tried to memorise some of Mr Chamble Pewter’s best strokes before they faded from his mind, so that he could use them later. But he never achieved anything like the polish they had. Throughout this narrative you will hear Edward Albert making frequent use of such destructive comments as “Bawls” or “Dam-rot” or “piffle before the wind”, or “I suppose that’s all right for you”, or “What’s the evidence for that?” “You can’t put that over me”, and so on. He even got to “Forgive me if my sense of humour prevents my swallowing that sort of rot.”

These were the outer defences of a more and more deeply entrenched ignorance. His instinct had always been to hate novel ideas, more particularly ideas that perplexed him or challenged his prepossessions. But previously he has been inclined to fear them. Now he despised them as impotent. In all this he was being thoroughly English. The Armistice celebrations had filled the soul of Homo Tewler Anglicanus with an immense reassurance. For yet another quarter of a century the educational mandarinate of the victorious Allies protected itself behind a Chinese Wall of self-satisfaction, and the growing body of modern knowledge, having no sense of humour, spluttered indignantly and in vain. As we have heard it.splutter. But you can’t be too careful of these strange new ideas and new things. You must not tamper with them. If you try to understand them, they may entangle and get hold of you, and then where will you be? Hide your mind from them, and hide them from your mind. Stick to the plain common sense of life. There will always be a tomorrow rather like today. At least so far there always has been a fairly similar tomorrow. Once or twice lately there have been jolts. . . .

Try not to notice these jolts.

“It is no good meeting trouble halfway,”

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