Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 21

Mrs. Rylands had been back in Casa Terragena two days before the succession of little notes and cards from Philip was broken by a considerable letter again, this time a whale of letter, opening with a long account of the return of the prophet Sempack to his own home. This account seemed to have been written some days ago; the handwriting and paper were different from those of the latter sheets.

It presented that large untidy person in his own distinctive setting. Philip’s curt, clumsy and occasionally incisive sentences, breaking now and then into a new-won fluency, portrayed Sempack like a big but prostrate note of interrogation, lying athwart the whole world. He had been rather more hurt it seemed than the doctors had at first supposed. There was a troublesome displacement of a wrist bone and there was something splintered at the end of a rib. Philip had had to wait longer than he had expected while X-ray examinations and a minor operation were carried out, and he had taken the great man down not in his own Talbot but in a special ambulance car to his home in Dorsetshire.

Philip was evidently surprised by Sempack’s home. “I had expected something very ordinary, something like a small, square, serious house taken out of Clapham, with a rather disagreeable and unwilling housekeeper,” he wrote, “but as a matter of fact he has done himself extremely well. In a compact but very pretty way.” Apparently it was a house built specially for its occupant on the slopes and near the crest of the long hill that runs between Corfe and Studland; Brenscombe Hill said the notepaper. “There are no other houses about there, which is like him somehow, and also along the hogsback above him there are groups of tumuli, which is also in a way characteristic. He always straddles back to pre-history. If ever the man picked up a flint implement he would do so as if he had just dropped it.”

The house was small but lined with books, it spread itself to the light, and the hill and a group of trees checked the burly assaults of the south-west wind. He worked before a big plate-glass window with a veranda outside, facing north of the sunrise. “It’s got a tremendous view. Stretches of heath and then the tidal flats of Poole Harbour, blue razors of sea cutting their way through green weed-banks and grey mud-banks to Poole and Wareham and tumbled bits of New Forest to the north; with Bournemouth and its satellites low and flat across the waters, lighting up in the twilight. It is like old Sempack to have a window with a view that goes away into distance beyond distance for miles and miles and which has differences of climate, clouds or sluggish mists here and sunshine there. ‘I can see thunderstorms gather and showers pass,’ he told me, ‘as if they were animals wandering across a field.’

“There’s a Mrs. Siddon, a sort of housekeeper who can typewrite on occasion, a woman with an interesting face and a quiet way with her — over something that smoulders. Evidently she adores him. She has the instincts of a good nurse. There is a charming little girl of ten or twelve about the place, with whom Sempack is on the best of terms, who belongs to her. Sempack vouchsafed no explanations, but I have a sort of feeling that behind the housekeeper is a story. Though he said nothing, she dropped a phrase or so. It distressed and moved her, more than it would move anyone who was just a common or garden paid servant, to get him back in a broken condition. She liked me from the outset because it was so plain I cared for him, and in the emotion of the occasion her natural reserve gave way a little. She has some tremendous cause for gratitude to him. She was ripe for confidences, but I thought it wasn’t my business to provoke them. I guess and infer that somewhen she had ‘done something,’ something pretty serious, I could imagine even a law court and something penal — just a phrase or so of hers for that — and he had fished her out of the mess she was left in and treated her like any other honourable individual. Put her on her feet when she was down and said nothing much about doing it. That may be all imagination on my part, but anyhow our Sempack has a home, which I never suspected; is extremely comfortable, which is still less what I thought; is tenderly looked after and sits among a loveliness, an English loveliness of rain and green and grey and soft sunlight, which in its way is almost as lovely as the glorious blaze, the stony magnificence, the vigour and strength of colour of dear old Terragena.

“I stayed three nights there and I may go down there again if it can be squeezed in before I come back to you. He can’t write much. He’s one-armed and one-handed for a time. He’s rigged up on a comfortable couch before his big window and he lies watching the late English spring turn into the mild English summer. A pocket-handkerchief garden is foreground, and then comes all that space. This accident of his, the inaction that is necessary, and the other things that have happened to him recently and the way social and political things are going in the world seem all to have conspired to make him turn upon himself and his life and ask himself a lot of new questions. Like the questions we are all asking ourselves. He put it himself better than I can put it. He compared it to travellers going up into big mountains. For a long time you see the road far ahead, plain and sure. Then almost suddenly you realise that there is a deep valley, a gorge perhaps, you never expected. You come out upon it and you look down, and you lose heart.”

Philip, his wife reflected, was learning to write and learning very rapidly. This would have been impossible a few weeks ago. Quick wits he had when he gave them a chance. He had evidently been reading widely and the uncertainty of his spelling was vanishing. All his latent memories of the look of words were reviving. There must be thousands of people, she reflected, who needed only sufficient stimulation to be released in this fashion from the sort of verbal anchylosis that had kept him inexpressive.

He went off into the question of Sempack’s love affair with Lady Catherine. A note of wonder that anything so mature and ungainly could think of passionate love appeared in what he wrote. “We walk, my dear Cynna, in a world of marvels unsuspected. It is only now that I begin to realise that people of fifty or sixty even, may still fall in love. And be horribly mortified when it doesn’t come off.” Much more did Philip marvel that anyone could fall in love with Lady Catherine. It threw a new light on Cynthia’s world for her to read her husband’s unaffected astonishment that this marvellously lovely person could captivate anyone. “He must be blind,” wrote Philip, “to things that are as plain as one-times-one-is-one, to me.” The young man went on with a lucidity that was bracingly brutal. “I cannot imagine anyone loving her. I can’t imagine anyone making love to her honestly. Lots of us, Cynna dear, can make love to all sorts of women, and the game is so attractive that there is a certain effort needed not to wander down that bye way. But I mean loving her for good and keeps and both ways. I can’t imagine that.”

Just as well, she reflected, for husband and wife to be perfectly frank and open about these things.

“But Catherine doesn’t want love or even good honest lust; she wants drivelling mutual exaggeration. ‘You and I be heroine and hero’ sort of business. She’s got nothing to give anyone but the sensations of being dressed up as Richard Cœur de Lion in a fancy dress ball. You couldn’t even laugh with her. She was made up by Nature and painted when she was born. Not a natural endearment. Not a shadow of tenderness. Pose and swagger. Love in a glare. She and her transmogrified Armenian, Fearon-Owen, pretending to be a lofty British aristocrat, are a fair match. Their great moments are when they come into rooms where there are a lot of people. Conspicuous is the climax. If she couldn’t be a whore she’d be a hoarding. So as to be looked at. What a man of Sempack’s quality can see in her beats me altogether. What did he see in her? I don’t believe he ever saw her. I believe she just stripped for action and threw herself at him and he saw something he had very properly forgotten for years, highly illuminated by the Italian sun — the female of the species. And he fell right back among the elements from which we all arose, strutted, started off to crow. And lo! the hen wasn’t looking any longer.”

Philip was shrewd there, his wife thought, and what followed seemed still shrewder.

“He was at loose ends with his work and worried about the state of the world, and active imaginations in distress fall back upon love affairs just as nervous, under-vitalised people fall back upon brandy. He was exposed to her. She went through the motions of falling in love with him; and as no one else, or at any rate no one else in her class of conspicuous beauty had ever gone through those motions at him before, I suppose it came to him as a tremendous reminder of things he’d put away out of his thoughts for ages. She humbugged him, to be plain about it, that he had made a conquest. To pass the time while she quarrelled with Fearon-Owen. And as a sort of revenge and consolation against Fearon-Owen. She lifted him up and then she heard Fearon-Owen whistle and she let him down, and his humiliation has been immense. Immense. His feelings are as slow and as massive as he is. I have things he has said to me to confirm these interpretations. They haven’t just sprung unbidden in my mind. ‘You are lucky,’ he said to me, praising you. ‘You are happy. You’ve got the personal thing in your life, the harbour of pride, safe and sure. It doesn’t come to us all.’ Then he fell back on his stock consolation just now. ‘Your danger,’ he said, ‘will be contentment. It is easier to attack great masses of work if one has a kind of hunger deep in one’s soul.’ And a little later, still envious, he said: ‘Everyone would like to play the part of the junior lead and be the happy lover. What is the good of hiding what we all desire? Every man, Rylands, dreams of being a lord of love. That is what we were built for in the beginning. Our endocrines cry out for it. Everything else is an adaptation and a perversion.’ Compensation! That was his great word. All vigorous scientific and literary work, he declared, was a ‘compensatory’ effort for what he called the ‘fundamental frustration’. He made a sort of melancholy joke about it and said that if we were going to make everyone healthy and happy and satisfied in the future we might have to create philosophers and savants by amputating a leg or forcing the spinal column into a curvature, or some such soul-awakening mutilation. All that is nonsense fundamentally, but it expressed his mood.

“Queer that so great a man should have to delude himself by such inventions. Queer to think how different we are, he and I. Surely I am as full of — what shall I call it? — public-spirited drive and get something big and general done, as he is. Surely I am. But I don’t see that I lead a thwarted disappointed personal life. I don’t see that as a bit necessary. Am I not a happy husband and a happy lover, and rich and free? Where do the elements of limitation and where does this necessity for sublimation and compensation appear in my case? He was just ill and sore enough, I fancy, to think only of himself and to ignore how things were with me. The truth is of course that he would be a philosopher and a pioneer of progressive ideas if he had never had a trace of humiliation in his life, if personally he had been as beloved and splendid as Solomon in all his glory. But the one thing comes in happily to nurse the wounds of the other. That is how it is with him.”

Mrs. Rylands put the letter down for a moment and thought. Then she looked at certain phases in the handwriting again. Did Philip get all his heart’s desire? Could he ever? How far was his life too now heading for restraint and self-suppression? Heart’s desire can be discursive and change from day to day. Should heart’s desire be imprisoned or left free to wander and return? She pulled up on the edge of a reverie and resumed her reading.

After all, Philip considered, this rather grotesque love disappointment and the collision with the omnibus were neither of them the main cause of Sempack’s troubled mind. They had merely tapped the ladened stratum and released the distress. The broader disappointment was the vast unanticipated valley of reaction that now yawned before him, before this confident preacher of Progress. Progress which had walked with such assurance, had hung arrested by the war and was now only staggering forward. “Has it ever occurred to you,” wrote Philip, “that Sempack could be an indolent man? He says he is. Immensely indolent? Did he say it to you? Probably he did because he harps on it so much. By saying it over repeatedly he has brought me some way to seeing him from his own point of view. To read, talk, discuss, write, to hear criticisms, discuss, read in new directions and write again, has been after all just the easiest line of living for him. Catherine it seems had chanced to get her fingers through exactly that joint in his armour. She taunted him with it when he was already troubled by doubts. His present illness is quite as much his dismay at the prospect of having to change his loose studious way of life for some new kind of exertion, hurry, disputes, dangers, etc., as it is either broken rib or broken heart. His main trouble is getting acclimatised to a new point of view.”

Philip and Sempack seemed to have talked for most of the time on that veranda that looked south of the sunrise. A phrase here and an allusion there conveyed the picture of Sempack sprawling ungainly, “like some Alpine relief map,” beneath a brown camel’s -hair rug upon his couch, talking still of that wonderful better time that was coming for an emancipated mankind, but talking also of the age of revolutionary conflict that was opening now and had to be lived through before ever the Millennium could be won. The Millennium was an old-fashioned theme, but the intervening age of battle and effort and the chances of defeat were new admissions. It was as if the facts wrung themselves out of him.

The talk must have rambled and Philip’s memoranda rambled too. The writing varied. It was not clear whether he had written all this in Sempack’s house or somewhere on his way to London. But the main conception that emerged was that the progress of liberal thought and of world development in accordance with liberal thought which had been practically free and unhampered for a century was now threatened with restriction and arrest, and had to be fought for and secured. Sempack spoke as one who belonged to the Nineteenth Century, and Philip added the note that “by his reckoning that means 1815 to 1914.” Throughout this nineteenth century it seemed discussion had grown more free and bolder with every year. Towards the end one might propose, one might suggest almost anything. One might do so because throughout that age there had been no fundamental changes and people had come to believe there could be no fundamental changes. Liberal thought was free and respected because it appeared to be altogether futile. No one grudged the Great Thinker his harmless intellectual liberties. It was not until the second Russian revolution that this attitude came to an end. Then the ordinary prosperous man who had been disposed to tolerate every sort of idea and even to pat every sort of idea on the head as he chanced across it, discovered an idea that could turn and bite his hand. He discovered that projects for fundamental change might even produce fundamental changes.

Wilson also, Sempack thought, had frightened people with his League of Nations. There was hope and dismay everywhere in the world in 1919. People, great numbers of people, came to realise that what all these socialists and prophets of progress had been talking about might really begin to happen. There might actually be a world government which wouldn’t so much “broaden out” from existing governments, as push them aside and eat them up. For a League of Nations was either a super-government or a sham. The British Empire and La France and Old Glory had in actual fact to go the way of the Heptarchy, if this League fulfilled its promise. They had to be deprived of the sovereign right to war. And equally there might really be a new sort of economic life coming into existence. We might find ourselves positive, participating shareholders in a one world business, and all our individualism gone. Conduct was amenable to direction, with regard to health and work and all sorts of things, to an extent never suspected before the days of war propaganda and regimentation. Population might really be stanched and controlled. It was no dream. It was hard for most people to decide whether this was to be treated as a mighty dawn or the glare of the last conflagration.

And that he held was where we are still to-day. Still in doubt. The dreams of yesterday have become our urgent questions, our immediate possibilities. It stared everyone in the face. Philip, either quoting or paraphrasing or extending Sempack, it was not clear which, went on to an amusing analysis of how the confrontation of a whole world with a common revolutionary possibility had reacted on different types of character. Some were for leaping headlong into the new phase, were prepared to discover it new-born and already perfect even in Moscow and Canton; many were terrified by the practical strangeness of it and bolted back to reaction. A lot did not want to be bothered. That was the common lot. They wanted to go on with their ordinary occupations like rabbits in a hutch eating lettuce when the stables they are in are on fire. Nobody saw yet what a gigantic, comprehensive, unhurrying, “non-returnable” thing world reconstruction must be; those who sought it saw that least of all. We were living in a period of panic and short views both ways. Fascism was panic, the present Tory government of Great Britain was panic, the people of Moscow were clinging, just as desperately as any westerns, to theories and formulæ they knew were insufficient, making Gods of Marx and Lenin and calling a halt to thought and criticism. The New Model of the Revolution, steadfast and sure of itself, always persisting and always learning, had still to appear. “‘Clamour, conflict and muddle,’” quoted Philip, “‘and so it must be until the great revolution has ceased to be a reverie, has passed through its birth storms and become the essential occupation, the guiding idea, the religion and purpose of lives like yours, lives like your wife’s, all that is left of lives like mine and of a mighty host of lives. The socialist movements of the nineteenth century, the communist movement, are no more than crude misshapen, small anticipations of the great revolutionary movement to which all lives, all truly living human beings, must now be called. A new religion? It is that. To be preached to all the world.

“‘Is this demand enormous and incredible?’ he asked.

“I said that to me it was enormous but not incredible.

“‘If it is incredible,’ said he, ‘there is nothing worth having before mankind.’”

From that point on Philip cited Sempack hardly at all and wrote, as it were, for himself. He had accepted and digested his Sempack and was even perhaps thinking ahead of him, crossing his ts for him and dotting his is. He enlarged on this conception of revolution planned and wilful, as the coming form of mental existence. The scale of life was altering, and the new movement from the outset must needs be very great, greater than any other movement that has ever sought to change the general way of mankind. One thought of the outstanding teachers and founders of the past as mighty figures, but this movement must be far mightier in its ambition. The days when a single Buddha and a little group of disciples could start out to change the human soul, or a single Mohammed establish the rule of Allah on earth, or a single Aristotle set all science astir, had passed by. Countless men and women must serve — as men and women served science — and none be taken as a figurehead. This new world cult would have an infinitude of parts and aspects but it must never lose itself in its parts. It must be held together by a common confession and common repudiations. Its common basis must be firstly the history of all life as one being that grew in wisdom and power, and secondly the completest confidence in the possibility of the informed will to comprehend and control. Such ideas were spreading already like a ferment throughout the world.

It was just because this world religion, blind still and hardly more aware of itself than a new-born puppy, was nevertheless astir and crawling and feeling its way about, that reaction and suppression were everywhere becoming aggressive and violent. With the soundest instinct they were impelled to kill the new world — if it could be killed — before it accumulated the impetus that would abolish them. It is not only those who desire it who see the great order of the world at hand, but they also, those others who apprehend it as the shadow of a new state of affairs utterly unpropitious to and prohibitive of all their pride and advantages. They too believe it is possible and near. Violent reaction is the first catspaw to every revolutionary storm. And so for all further progress those who are progressives will have to fight, have to organise — for defence as well as aggression. It is a fight for the earth and the whole world of man. Who can live in peace, who can be let alone, in the midst of such a war? Who can be permitted the immunities of a friendly neutrality? The forces of reaction are not more powerful now but more manifest, more active and militant because only now do they begin to feel the strength and the full danger of the creative attack.

To that effect Philip had written — though more discursively. He halted, he went back, he repeated himself several times; but she gathered his meaning together. It was Sempack written out again in the handwriting of a very young man — and touched with a nervous wilfulness that was all Philip’s own.

There came a break in Philip’s letter. When it resumed it was on the South Street notepaper. He was back in London. Sempack upon his couch at the window was no longer the presiding figure of the discourse. He was far away in Dorset, so far, so lost in perspective as presently to be invisible and disregarded. Philip had found his wife’s letter about the Vinciguerra escapade waiting for him upon his desk.

“What a stir amidst the glories of Casa Terragena,” he wrote, “and what a plucky front you seem to have shown! You write as if it was all a lark, but I think you must have been pretty plucky not to scuttle indoors and have the shutters closed and the bolts shot when the shooting and shouting began. Reaction chasing Liberalism with intent to kill, among the magnolias, under the palms, amidst moonlight and fireflies. This is theory coming home to us with a vengeance. But there you are! The fighting is going on already; the old order takes the defensive — offensive defensive — and men are being hunted and wounded and killed in the name of nations and tyrannies. Damn those fellows! If I had been there that night there would have been some shooting. I would have had them out of the gardens faster than they came in — or there would have been memorable events. I tingle at the thought — the sort of chaps we had to stiffen after Caporetto! I don’t know whether it is liberalism or temper, but I’ll be drawn and quartered if I don’t show all the fight there is in me against these stupidities and violences and oppressions on the part of the second-rate doing their best to crush hope out of the world. Just as it dawns.

“My dear, I’m for fighting. That little invasion of our decent garden has stirred me like a trumpet. And after poor old Vinciguerra of all people!

“All the time that I have been away from you I have been thinking over myself and over my world and over our life as it spreads before us. I believe that this project of a sort of continuing resolute push towards one world system, is a feasible project and the most sporting and invigorating invitation that has ever been made to mankind. I want to go in for it with everything I’ve got. I want to give myself to it for your sake and my sake and for every reason in the world, and if I find little chaps in black shirts or black coats or red coats starting in to stop me or my sort of people from going the way we mean to go, it’s one of our lots will have to get right off the earth. What else is possible? How can we live in the same world with these castor-oil cads and their loaded canes? Still less with their Cockney imitators! . . .

“This isn’t mere wilfulness on my part. . . . ”

The handwriting changed as if the latter had been left and resumed.

“There are damnable threads in me though they hide from you as wood-lice bolt from the sun. If I do not go this way then for all I can tell I may go the other way and end another Uncle Robert. And I dread coming to be like the Right Honourable Baron more than any Calvinist ever feared hell.

“But if we are to give ourselves to this Revolution of Sempack’s the great revolution of the whole world, as our religion, as our way of life, it means a new way of living for us both, dearest wife. For us and for that Dear Expectation of ours. I do not see us, serving the great order of the world from the drawing-room of Casa Terragena. I do not see our child or our children living aloof from this huge conflict in an enchanted garden. A Rylands. Neither from your side nor from mine is that sort of offspring possible. If we are going to realise the teachings of the prophet Sempack, there must be an end to Casa Terragena. We must give it over to the botanists if they will take it and send off Bombaccio to seek his fortunes in America.

“The common English are our people and to England we must come; either to London because it is our natural centre or to Edensoke because it is our dominion. We must use our position in the Rylands properties to learn and experiment and find out if we can how to turn round the face of the whole system towards the new order. All our surplus wealth must go into the movement, and the spending of that we must study as closely as dear Uncle Edensoke studies his investment coups. No Rylands ever threw money away and I don’t mean to begin. You don’t see me pouring my little accumulations into the party funds of L.G. or Ramsay Mac. I shall probably begin by acquiring newspaper properties, and if I can make them do their duty by the movement and pay — so much the better. Then I shall have funds for the next thing. That will be organisation. I shall work like hell. That is the new, hard, serious, fighting, straining, interesting and satisfying life we have to face, my darling, and I am glad we have found it while we are still young. I no more doubt your courage to face it than I doubt that the sun can shine. We’ll show all these infernal tories, stick-in-the-mud liberals, labour louts and labour gentilities, loafers and reactionaries, what two bright young people can do in the way of shoving at the wheels of progress. We’ll be such disciples of Sempack that we’ll put his wind up. We’ll start the move. We’ll lug him out from his dreams into reality — blinking. . . . This house here in South Street, the agents say, will let quite easily.”

The letter ended abruptly.

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