Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 6

Lady Catherine and her maid departed in the late afternoon after a flurried and unconsoling tea and left an atmosphere of crisis and dismay behind them. After lunch Mrs. Rylands tried to sleep according to her régime, but the gaunt spectacle of dear old England, the unimaginable spectacle of dear old England torn by a monstrous civil conflict, with a massacre of the sentinels at the Royal Mint and a sinister rabble marching upon Westminster; Scotland Yard more like the Bastille than ever and machine-guns making a last harvest of resistance down the Mall before the sack of Buckingham Palace began, kept her awake. These were preposterous notions, but failing any other images it was difficult to keep them off the screen of her mind. What could this strike of a whole people be like in reality and why had no one realised the advent of this frightful clash of classes in time?

She just lay awake and stared at the blank of her imagination as some gravelled author destitute of detail might stare painfully at a sheet of paper.

When at last Lady Catherine had truly gone, it was as if earth and silence had suddenly swallowed a Primrose League fair with five large roundabouts and a brass band. She turned round to find Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan behind her appreciating the calm.

“Marvellous energy,” he said.

“She will be a great help,” said Cynthia with unusual asperity.

“There is one thing I observe,” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan.

“Let us have some fresh tea,” said Mrs. Rylands, “and sit down and try to restore our minds to order.”

Then his words awakened a familiar echo in her mind. Surely he had said them before — as far as that! Several times. And several times been interrupted.

Of course he had! He had been trying to make this remark ever since he and Lady Catherine had come back from Ventimiglia. Perhaps he had been trying to make it even in Ventimiglia. It was a shame! Mrs. Rylands turned to him brightly. “You were saying, Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan?”

He laughed deprecatingly. “Well,” he preluded.

“There is one little thing about this crisis, dear lady,” he said, and made the diamond glitter; “one small consoling thing. If you will consult those French and Italian papers. You will see that while on the one hand they proclaim the outbreak of the social war and the probable end of the British Empire, they note, less conspicuously but I think more convincingly, that the franc is still falling and the pound sterling still holding its own even against our own more than golden dollar.”

“And that means?”

“That everyone does not take this crisis quite so seriously as Lady Catherine. Suppose we wait a day more before we despair of England. I can quite believe that even now — Westminster is not in flames. I am convinced even that dinner will be served quite normally in Buckingham Palace to-night.”

“And meanwhile,” smiled his hostess, “unless Bombaccio has heard the call of his union, we might have a little fresh tea.”

Miss Fenimore leapt to the bell.

They moved into the lower part of the hall and Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan yielded himself to the largest arm-chair with a sigh of contentment that it was difficult to disconnect altogether from the recent departure of their lovely friend.

There were some moments of silence.

“This man at Torre Pellice,” began Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan in a reflective voice, “this man I am proposing to visit, has a very fine taste indeed. He collects. He has a curiosity and a liveliness of mind that I find most enviable. In these times of conflict and dispersal it is rather nice to think of a collector — and of a few minor things anyhow being put out of immediate danger of breakage.”

He paused. Miss Fenimore made a purr of approval and Mrs. Rylands instructed Bombaccio about the fresh tea. Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan continued meditatively.

“One sort of thing he collected for a time were those prostrate trumpets of coloured glass in which the early Victorians put flowers. ‘Cornucopias,’ I fancy they were called. Typically there was a solid, heavy slab of alabaster-like substance and on this the cornucopia reposed and often by a pretty fancy its lower end was finished off by an elegant hand of metal and the cornucopia became a sleeve. These cornucopias may have interbred a little with those cups they call rhytons which end in a head below. There must have been a great abundance of them at one time in early Victorian England, and they are still to be found in considerable variety, in purple and blue and coloured glass and in dead white glass with spangles and in imitation marble. At one time no dinner table could have been complete without a pair, probably matching a glass epergne. My friend discovered one in a little back street shop in Pimlico. At first he knew so little about these things that he accumulated single ones and only realised later that they must go in pairs. He was happy for a time. Until he began to detect the tracks of some abler seeker in this field. Another — others perhaps — were collecting. He came upon articles — in the Connoisseur, in other art magazines. The situation became plainer. The harvest had been gathered in. Mr. Frank Galsworthy, the painter who has that beautiful cottage garden in Surrey, had got so far ahead with them, that my friend could not hope to do more than glean after him. So my friend turned his attention to Welsh love spoons.

“Do you know of them? Do you know what they are? They are wonderful exploits in carving. (Thank you, that is exactly as I like it. One lump only.) They used to be made — perhaps some are still made — by Welsh lovers when they were courting. They were carved all out of one chosen piece of good oak. There would be a spoon and then at the end of its short handle a chain of links and it would all end in a hook or a whistle. The links would be free and there would be perhaps an extra bit, a barred cage with little balls running about inside; the whole contraption made out of one solid piece of timber. I never imagined the Welsh were such artists at wood carving. I suppose Mr. Jones would sit at the side of the beloved while he did it. Love spoons. What an answer to Caradoc Evans! You have heard the mysterious word ‘spooning.’ It is said to come from that.”

Miss Fenimore was greatly delighted at this unexpected etymology. Her pleasure cried aloud.

Her sudden nervous laughter, a certain glow, might have led a careless observer to suppose her an adept at spooning. She slaked her excitement by attention to the teapot. There was a brief interval of cake-offering. Miss Fenimore offered cake to Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan and Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan offered cake to Mrs. Rylands and Miss Fenimore and Mrs. Rylands offered cake to Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan and Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan took some cake.

“I am afraid,” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan biting his cake, “that I am too hopelessly indolent and inconsecutive ever to make a good collector or else I think I should have devoted myself to bergamotes.”

“I thought they were a kind of pear,” said Mrs. Rylands.

“A kind of orange, primarily. But the name is also used for a delicious silly sort of little leather box made years ago in the country round about Grasse. You may have seen one by chance. They still lurk, looking rather depressed and dirty, in those queer corners of old curiosity shops where one finds little bits of silver and impossible rings. It is a box of leather, yes, but the skin of which the leather is made is orange skin and it is polished and faintly stained and has a dainty little flower or so painted upon it. The boxes are oval or heart-shaped; you know the delicate insinuations of that age. These bergamotes must be, most of them, a hundred years old or more and yet when you open them and snuff inside you can persuade yourself that the faint flavour of orange clings to them yet, scent that was brewed in the sunshine when Louis Philippe was King.”

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan could not have chosen a better theme to exorcise the flare of unrest and alarm that had blown about the Casa Terragena household for the past three hours.

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