Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 11

It was evening and Mrs. Rylands lay in bed in her unlit room. The windows were wide open but the blue serenities without were seen through a silken haze of mosquito curtain. And Mrs. Rylands was thinking.

Before lunch she had summoned Lady Catherine to her bedside and thrust most of her duties as a hostess upon her. “I’m ill,” she said. “I’ve had a shock, never mind what, dearest, don’t say a word about it, but it’s made me ill. I want to be alone, and there’s all this party!”

All Lady Catherine’s better self came uppermost. She kissed her friend. “I’ll see they get their lunch,” she said; “I and Bombaccio. It’s your privilege to be ill now, just as you please and whenever you please. And afterwards shall I pack some of them off?”

“They do very little harm,” said Mrs. Rylands. “I shall get on all right — in a bit. Get the bridge and tennis Stupids out of the house if you can — if they have somewhere to go. But don’t chase them out. They amuse each other. . . . Don’t make them uncomfortable. . . . I like to have Mr. Sempack about. I like him. When they have gone I will come down again.”

“And Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan?”

“He doesn’t matter. Just take hold of things, Kitty. I can’t arrange.”

Lady Catherine took hold of things. “Don’t you bother, Cynthia. Bombaccio and I could run four such parties.”

“Don’t want to see anyone. Just want to think.”

“I quite understand.”

A last murmur from the bed. “Don’t want to be told or asked about anything just now.”

A kiss in response and Lady Catherine had gone.

The head on the pillow snuggled under the sheet with an affectation of profound fatigue until Lady Catherine was surely out of the room, and then it was raised and looked round cautiously. Slowly, wearily Mrs. Rylands sat up again and became still, staring in front of her. The protective mask of the rather pathetic dear little thing had vanished. A very grave, very sad human being was revealed.

For a long time her mind remained stagnant. And when at last it did revive it did not so much move forward from thought to thought as sit down and contemplate her world unveiled.

She had been living in a dream, she realised, and only such a shock as this could have awakened her. She had been living in a dream wilfully. In spite of a thousand hints and intimations, she had clung to her beautiful illusions about Philip and herself and the quality of life. Now that she had not so much let go of her dream as had it torn from her hand, it began forthwith to seem incredible and remote. It was plain to her that for weeks and months she had understood Philip’s real quality — and refused to understand. She was already amazed to remember how steadfastly she had refused to understand.

When at last, late in the afternoon, a letter came from Philip, a note rather than a letter, written in pencil, it did but confirm the hard outlines of her realisations.

“My darling Cynthia,” wrote Philip. “What can I say to you, except ask you to forgive me? I suppose you think I’m an utter beast and I suppose I am an utter beast. Yet these things take one in a way you can’t understand and one finds out what seems just a lark isn’t. I do hope anyhow that whatever you say or do to me you won’t be too hard on old Puppy. It’s my fault first and foremost and all the time. It is dead against all Puppy’s code to go back on the hostess with whom she is staying in that fashion. But one thing led to another. I over-persuaded her and really we had not planned or arranged what happened. On my honour. It just came upon us. It may have been brewing in the air but I swear I didn’t plan it. We have always been pretty good friends, Puppy and me I mean, and I suppose we ought not to have done anything so risky as a swim together without anyone else. Her bathing dress tore on a nail. A pure accident. Things looked worse than they actually were. At the time it seemed just fun. Anyhow she has insisted on clearing out and she’s gone. And that’s that. I’d like to come and see you and have a talk when you feel up to it. I could kick myself to death that this should have happened to you, now above all. I feel the dirtiest of rotters. Nothing of the sort if I can help it shall ever happen again. That I swear. Forgive me and try to forget it all, for both our sakes. Your sorry Philip.”

She read that over in a whisper. “Your sorry Philip.”

She agreed.

She lay for a long time quite motionless with his note on the counterpane before her. It was exactly like him. How could she ever have imagined that he was anything else but precisely what that note displayed?

And yet he was so good-looking and with something fine — delusively fine was it? — about his face and bearing. So different from wary unreal Geoffry. Still.

Later on another letter was brought to her, a letter in a different hand, a large clear and firm script without a trace of the puerility of Philip’s still unformed writing, and this also she read and re-read. Now in the twilight she went on with the train of thought this second letter had set going.

“Dear Mrs. Rylands,” it began; “Forgive this rigmarole please that I am obliged to write to you. A sort of accident made you tell me something of your trouble and I feel perhaps you will not resent it if I write to you about it. Anyhow I must write about it even if you do not read it, because I can think of nothing else.”

She thought of his sprawling person dispersed over a writing-table, his face transfigured intently, and then came a memory of him like Pan half changed into an old olive tree of like some weather-worn Terminus, being kissed by Lady Catherine. For plainly she had been kissing him. Mrs. Rylands recalled that incident now without shock or repulsion. He was so different from her idea of a man who could love. Catherine might have been kissing an old leather-bound bible. . . .

“I want to write, if I may, as a close friend. I like and admire your husband very greatly and I like and admire you very greatly. I am, so far as you go, an old experienced man who has observed far more than he has experienced, and I think if I could make you see what has happened as I see it, it might cease to appear so conclusive and devastating an incident as perhaps it does now. It is significant enough, I admit, but indeed it is no sort of catastrophe.

“I have liked him ever since he came into the room at Roquebrune — the first time I saw him. He has exceptional vitality, energy, intelligence. He is extraordinarily young for his years. For all practical purposes he is still merely adolescent. He may still become a man of great distinction. Considering his position and opportunities he may yet play a quite considerable part in the world’s affairs.”

“That is what I had dreamt,” she said and her eyes went back to that pencil scrawl.

“What has happened does nothing to change that. There are points material to this issue which I do not think you apprehend. I do not see how they can have entered into your consciousness. I will try to put them to you — if you will be patient with me. Let me repeat, I think enormous things of your Philip. I don’t think that you made a mistake when you loved him and gave your life to him. And for you — you might be my daughter — I have that feeling, that only people who have been schooled to disinterested affection can have. I have watched you both. I care for you both deeply. I care doubly. I care for you also on account of him. I care for him also on account of you. Two fine lives are yours; two hopeful lives.”

“And then this!” she whispered and for some moments read no more.

“I want you to consider your differences. I don’t think you have ever thought about your differences. Everything has disposed you to ignore them. You are a finer thing than Philip but you are — slighter. You are completer but slighter. He is still unformed but larger and more powerful. He has the makings of a far bigger and stronger and more effective person than you can ever be. You must grant me that. I think you will grant me that. We human things; what are we? Channels through which physical energy flows into decision and act and creative achievement. There is a pitiless pressure to do. Living is doing. Life is an engine, a trap, to catch blind force and turn it into more life and build it up into greater and more powerful forms. That is how I see life. That is how you are disposed to see life. We are all under that pressure — in varying degrees. The chief business of every one of us, every one who has a consciousness of such things, is to master and direct and utilise his pressure. Most of us spend the better part of our lives trying to solve the problem of how that is to be done before all pressure of vitality is exhausted. And your Philip is under pressures, blind pressures, ten, twenty times as powerful as all the driving force in you. I hope this does not offend you?”

“There is a sort of truth in that,” said Mrs. Rylands.

“And now let me assure you he loves you. It is you he loves, have no doubt of it. And he loves you for endless things of course, but among them, chief among them, because of this, that you have self-control, you seemed to him, as you are, serene, wise, balanced, delicately poised.”

“Not now,” said Mrs. Rylands.

“He thinks, no! he realises, that you have direction, which is just what he lacks. That brought him to you perhaps first. That does and can continue to hold him to you. But that does not prevent old Nature, who has made us all out of the dust and the hot damp and the slime, pressing upon him and pressing him. He is living here in this warmth, in this abundance, far off from the business life and political life that might engage him; he came here — that is the irony of it — to be with you, to wait upon you here in the loveliest, most perfect setting. You know that was his intention. You know he has treated you sweetly and delicately. Until, as you think, you found him out.”

She nodded assent and turned the page quickly.

“But he wasn’t deceiving you. You haven’t found him out so much as he has found himself out. He meant all that devotion. If only some Angel above could have turned off the tap of his energy to a mere trickle, then this would really have been the paradise you thought it was, until to-day. But all he could do here, to be the perfect lover of your dreams, he could have done with one twentieth part of the energy that drives through his nerves and blood. You knew he was restless?”

“I thought it was this Coal Strike,” said Mrs. Rylands.

“Any voice that called to him, he had activity released to hear. And dear old Nature, horrible old Nature, has only one channel for the release of pent-up energy.”

“Horrible old Nature,” Mrs. Rylands agreed and seemed to recall some impression. Nature! So gross and yet with a queer power in her grossness, so revolting in an ugliness that sometimes became suddenly and disconcertingly holy and terribly beautiful! But what was Mr. Sempack saying?

“With you —— A man may show his love by a delicate restraint. Must indeed be very delicate and restrained. And here he was in this fermenting blaze with nothing else to do — nothing. He didn’t want to make love to any other woman. He loves nobody but you. If he had wanted to make love — consider! Lady Catherine here, is being driven towards trouble also by our tyrannous old Grandmother. There is no comparison in the loveliness of these two women. But Lady Catherine is an equal, a personality. He wouldn’t look at her, wouldn’t dream of her. Because that would be a real infringement of you. That would be a real division of love. But on the other hand there was this Miss Clarges, who disavows all the accessories of sex — and is simply sexual. She is good company in the open air. She swims well and one can swim with her. Things change their emotional quality away from the house. Wet skin and sunburnt skin, movement and sunlight and a smiling face. Comes a flare-up, a desire, and a consoling and refreshing physical release. Nervous release. It can seem such a simple thing. My dear Mrs. Rylands, you may choose to think of it as horrible, you may be compelled to think of it as horrible, but indeed, I can assure you, at times it can be as healthy a thing physically as breathing mountain air. That is outside your quality, your experience, but not outside your understanding. If you care to understand; if you have the generosity to understand. But of course you have the generosity to understand. There is a case for them both. What concerns me most is the case for him.”

She put down the letter again. She had come to the end of a sheet.

“But I loved him,” she said. “This is asking too much.”

She lay still a long time. “It is asking too much,” she whispered.

She glanced again at what she had read. “Nervous release,” she re-tasted — and it tasted disgustingly.

What was wrong with Mr. Sempack — or what was wrong with her?

What were these different tunes that were being played simultaneously upon their two temperaments by the same world?

“It isn’t right,” she thought. “But I’m not clever enough, my head is not clear enough, to see where it is wrong. . . . I’m wrong too. I see I’m wrong. . . . Perhaps he’s righter than I am. . . .

“My poor little wits!”

It seemed to her that Sempack put things with a sort of reasonableness, but in a light that was strange, like the light in the tanks of Monaco Aquarium. It was as if the sun had suddenly gone green. Everything had very much the same shape but nothing had its proper colour. Everything had become deep. This man’s mind was as large and unusual as his body. She took up the next sheet and the light of Mr. Sempack’s mind seemed greener and colder and the things it illuminated deeper than ever.

“If he is to stay here centring his life wholly upon you, what is to be done with the nineteen-twentieths of his vitality that will be left over? It is not merely physical vitality we are dealing with. That might be devoted to swimming, climbing, tennis. But you cannot separate bodily and imaginative energy so completely; the one drags at the other. There is no such thing as purely physical vitality. The accumulation of energy amidst this warmth and beauty and leisure affects the imagination, demands not simply an effort but a thrill.”

There was a blank space of half a sheet.

“I am trying to expose the real Philip to you, this soul struggling with the mysteries of a body as a man struggles with an unbroken horse. And someone else also, I want to expose to you, whom perhaps you do not yet completely know, the real Cynthia Rylands. You see, I am not going to ask you to forgive him. That is the danger ahead for both of you. He will ask that, but I know better than he does in this matter, about him and about you. I want you to realise that there is nothing to forgive.”

She stopped to think that over and then read on.

“Philip is your job,” the resolute writing continued. “I see no other job in the world for you to compare with it or to replace it. Children? People overrate what a modern mother has to do for her children, as they underrate what she can do for her man. Women are for men and children are a by-product. You have given your life to Philip for better or worse, and nothing can ever take it altogether back. Try to take it back and you will leave a precious part of you to die.

“Is this true of all husbands and all wives? you may ask. No. Nothing is true of all husbands and all wives. Half the men in the world are nincompoops, and an unknown proportion of women idiots. I do not see that they and their horrid, sloppy relationships come into this discussion. Let them slop and squabble in their own way. I am thinking of two people of very fine quality and unequal energy. I am thinking of you and Philip. You can supply a protection, a charity, a help, a stability to that young man, without which he will just make the sort of mess of life natural to his type. And he is worth what you can give him. He has quality. He is Worth saving from his temperamental fate. But your first sacrifice has to be, the sacrifice of your instinctive sexual resentments. Your first effort has to be an enormous patience and charity. Your first feat has to be your realisation that much may be clean or cleansable in him, that would be, well — a little disgusting to you. I must make myself quite plain. It is not a question of your forgiving him this affair with Miss Clarges, after due repentance on his part, and going on again on your old lines with the understanding that nothing of the sort is ever going to happen again. What is before you is something much harder than that. It is a matter of bracing yourself up to the new idea that this sort of thing is likely to happen again in your lives, and that it may happen repeatedly, and however often it may happen, it has never to make the slightest diminution of your support of him or of his respect and confidence in you. While you stand over his life, you unbroken and resolute, no affair of this sort will ever wreck it. He will come back to you. You will be his fastness, his safe place. Every time more and more. But talk and think of offending and forgiving, put yourself on a level with Miss Puppy Clarges, fight her for him, peck the other hen, and shut yourself against him — in any way, in any way, and down he goes and down you go, and your two lives will dribble through a tangle of commonplace sexual quarrels and estrangements to some sort of muddling divorce or separation or compromise. . . .

“I don’t know why I write all this to you. Your brain is as fine as mine and you must know all that I am writing. As you read it it will come to your mind not as a new conviction but as the illumination of something that has always been there.

“You are Philip Rylands’ wife. In the fullest sense and to the last possible shade of meaning, you are his wife; you are a wife by nature, and the rôle of a wife is not to compete and be jealous, but to understand and serve and by understanding and serving rule. Wives are rare things in life, but you are surely one. You cannot possibly give yourself the airs of the ordinary married mistress. You have wedded yourself to your Philip — beyond jealousy — except for his sake. I can see you in no other part.”

Again came a sort of break in the writing.

“That is really all that I have to say to you. Perhaps I may add — rest assured that unless I am no judge of a man, when at last he comes to his full stature — through your protection and your help and stimulation — Rylands will be worth while. Through him you may do great things in the world and in no other way will you personally ever do great things. Because you are reflective; because your initiatives are too delicate for the weight and strains of life.”

Mr. Sempack had not signed this letter. There it ended.

After re-reading this communication Mrs. Rylands turned out her bedside lamp and lay quite motionless in the deepening twilight, and thought. Far away Mentone returned out of the evening blue that had drowned it and became a necklace of minute lights flung upon the deep azure darkness.

“He will be worth while.” Was that written to comfort her?

Worth while? Was that true? Would Phil really become that strong competent man laying a determining hand on human affairs she had once dreamt of, or were not both she and Mr. Sempack a little carried away by his good looks, by his occasional high gravity and by something generous and naïve in his quality? . . . And also . . . Something dear about him? . . . Something very dear?

Mrs. Rylands found that she was weeping.

After all, she asked with an abrupt mental collapse, did it matter in the least if he was worth while?

“Sometimes such a dear,” she whispered.

She had thought and perhaps feared that a repulsion, a physical dislike might have crept between herself and Philip, but suddenly she realised that he was just as magnetic for her as he had ever been. She found herself longing for him to come to her, longing, irrationally, monstrously.

She would not send for him. She could not send for him. That would be too much. But she longed for him to come to her.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02