Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 9

That evening after dinner they sat in the great room upstairs before a fire of logs in the Italianate fire-place, and Mr. Sempack without any allusion whatever to Lady Catherine talked about Thought and Action and the change of tempo as well as of scale that was coming upon human concerns. Mrs. Rylands lay on the big sofa and Mr. Sempack occupied an arm-chair beside her. Miss Fenimore assisted at the conversation on the other side of the fire-place. She played also a slow difficult patterning patience on a card table with two packs of cards, a patience that kept her lips moving, not always inaudibly with, “Black Knave goes on Queen and red ten on Knave, but what then? All these come up, nine, eight, seven, but does that free a space. Won’t do. Won’t do.”

She had excused herself for her patience. “I can hear just as well,” she said, “and it seems to steady my attention. I don’t think I miss the least little thing you say.”

Sometimes her patience kept her quite busy and sometimes she would leave it alone and just sit back with the residue of her deck in hand and take a long deep swig of whatever Mr. Sempack was saying. Then she would sigh and resume her attack on her cards, visibly refreshed.

Although Mr. Sempack never made the ghost of an allusion to Lady Catherine, it was quite plain to Mrs. Rylands that the gist of his talks with that lady lay under the rambling discourse like bones beneath the contours of a limb. When he talked of the greater importance of the man of science to the politician, he was really exonerating himself from her charge of political impotence and insignificance, and when he declared that with the abolition of distance through the increasing ease of communication in the world, there had come such an enlargement and complication of political issues that they could no longer be dealt with dramatically in a day or a week, she felt that he was still trying to disabuse Lady Catherine from her delusion that decisive incidents at elections, scenes in the House and displays of “personality” at Cabinet meetings could have any real influence any longer upon the course of human affairs. He talked casually and indolently as things came into his head, but Mrs. Rylands perceived that the green leather book would profit considerably by the things he was saying.

His remarks joined on very directly to that earlier talk, that successful social evening, that had so pleased her, that renewal of the legendary glories of the Souls — and it was still not a fortnight ago! He revived the vision of a greater civilisation ahead, a world civilisation, in which the pursuit of science would be the chief industry and increasing power an annual crop. That vision had a little faded from Mrs. Rylands’ mind. He restored it to probability and even to imminence. It became reality again and all the social and political conflicts of to-day mere temporary disorders, like battles and contests of hobbledehoys amidst advertisement-covered hoardings on the vacant site of some great building. War became a declining habit that mankind was shaking off. And those troubles in England were no more than a legacy of barbaric methods that would still win coal by hand labour and make a private profit out of a common necessity. Some day we should win our coal out of the earth in so different a fashion that there would be neither myriads of dingy toilers nor groups of owners concerned with it at all, and from the point of view of the larger issue therefore, the dispute between them was a false issue that led nowhere and settled nothing at all. Even as they disputed, the grounds of the differences were dissolving under their feet.

But there were certain things that the green leather book would want to know to-morrow morning and Mrs. Rylands sought elucidation.

“I see the world could be changed, ought to be changed, from all its present confusions,” she agreed. “Things do not change themselves. Much of this progress so far has taken people by surprise. Now the surprise is over and we see the steps, the enormous steps that have to be made, if we are to pass from this — this complex muddle of affairs — to the world civilisation. You speak as though that would certainly be brought about. But who are the people who are bringing it about?”

“The scientific minded people,” said Mr. Sempack. “The people who think ahead.”

“I see that people of that sort are adding to the vision of the great age coming, filling in details, helping our imaginations to smooth over difficulties. You alone have done wonderful things to make the prospectus credible. But it is still only a prospectus. Are people taking shares? Are any of these people who talk and wish so well, doing anything to bring the World Utopia about?”

“I think, yes,” said Mr. Sempack after a slight pause.

She felt she was pressing him, but she wanted to know. “How?” she asked.

“By making it increasingly evident that it is possible and bringing people to realise that it is desirable — a refuge from the vast dangers that threaten us all, while with the immensely powerful weapons of to-day we stick to antiquated moral and social traditions.”

“Yes, but ——” said Mrs. Rylands.

She gathered all her forces. She wasn’t trying to argue with him but she did want to be able to face the candid pages of the green leather book to-morrow without any inconvenient queries arising — finished and sure in what she had to write. She had to write it as plainly as she could and then she had to copy out her exercise and send it to her fellow student Philip, who would be, she felt certain, quite wonderful at jabbing in destructive questions.

“You see, Mr. Sempack, this is my difficulty. I see the world abounding in projects for doing things better. People who write about that sort of thing write about it, and we read it when we are in the reading mood and want our imaginations stirring. But the mass of people just go on. I suppose that if you told all that you are telling me to a miner and said that there were to be no miners at all in the new world, but only very clever boring machines, and ways of taking air into the pit to burn the coal and make power there instead of digging it out and so on, I doubt if he would be ready to bring the change about. He would think of himself and say that though it was bad enough to be an underpaid miner, perhaps not employed too regularly, but still getting a sort of living, it might be worse to be in a world where he wasn’t wanted at all.”

“He could be changed.”

“Not all at once. He’d have his missus and the kids and his dog and his habits. Would he want to be changed? Changed I mean in his nature, as you would change him. More money perhaps he would like and a rather better house. But what more? And take the mine-owner: you can’t expect him to welcome and help his own abolition.”

“The new things will come gradually enough to smooth over that sort of thing.”

“If somebody wants them. But who is going to want them? I’m asking, because I really want to know, Mr. Sempack, who is going to want them enough to take a lot of pains to bring them about? Many of us no doubt want them vaguely and generally but do any of us want them particularly and fiercely enough to get them past the awkward turns and difficult corners?”

“They involve the clear promise of an ampler life.”

“I don’t worry you with my persistent questions? They are silly questions I know, but they puzzle me.”

“Not a bit silly. You argue very closely. Go on.”

“Well, this clear promise of an ampler life. Suppose you said to a cat, ‘Come, I will teach you to swim and dive like a seal and fly like a bat,’ and so on, ‘if only you will stop catching the songbirds in my garden,’ and suppose the cat were to say, ‘Life is short. It is fun to think of such things and they make me yearn to leave the little birds alone and eat fish, but all the same this means a frightful change in my habits. I might prove less adaptable than you suppose. I might die before I adapted. I do get along fairly well as it is. Have you ever seen me go up a tree? Or jump and catch a young nestling in the air? Do you mind if I just go on being a cat?’”

Mr. Sempack nodded and smiled thoughtfully at the fire and left his hostess free to continue.

“All the sorts of people I see about me, all the soldiers we know for example; they are most liberal-minded about war I find and about the League of Nations and that sort of thing, provided there is no serious interference with soldiering.”

“They will get most horribly gassed in the next war.”

“They hope to gas first. But even if they think the outlook a little unpleasant in that way, they still have no idea of how they are going to change over. Or what they are going to change into. And meanwhile — meanwhile they go on being soldiers.”

“They will be changed over,” said Mr. Sempack largely.

“But who will change them over? Directly one goes out of a talk like this back into one’s everyday life, one finds everyone more or less in the same position — doing something in the present system, hanging on to it, dreading dislocation, objecting to any improvement that really touches them. But otherwise quite liberal-minded and progressive.”

“The forces of change will override them. Change of conditions is incessant.”

“But change may go any way, Mr. Sempack. There is no one steering change. Why shouldn’t it go hither and thither? It raises up; it may cast down.”

“Why not?” asked Mr. Sempack of the flaring olive knots.

“We may ‘meanwhile’ for ever. People may be driven this way and that. Some may go down and some up. Old types may vanish and new ones come. Some of that may be progress but some of that may be loss. Nature gives no real guarantee. Change may go on until men are blue things three feet high and rats hunt them as we hunt rats and your great civilisation may never arrive — never arrive at all. It may have loomed up and receded and loomed up again and been talked about again as you talk about it, and then things may have slipped back and slipped back more and gone on slipping back. And the rats may have got bolder and the disease germs more dwarfing and crippling, and energy may have ebbed.”

“Touché,” said Mr. Sempack and paused tremendously.

Mrs. Rylands adjusted a cushion and regarded him expectantly before lying back more comfortably.

“It’s come out,” said Miss Fenimore and made a great triumphant scrabbling with her cards. “They don’t often come out.”

“That is precisely the question that occupies my mind nowadays — dominantly,” said Mr. Sempack, disregarding Miss Fenimore. “My life has been so largely given to thought and the project. . . . After all, all this constructive Utopianism is a growth of very recent years. . . . But I do see that a time comes — and in the case of these matters the time may be here already — when these creative ideas must come down into the market place, among the hawkers and the cheats and the Carnival maskers, and fight to impose themselves. Science can never be really pure science. Science sprang from practical curiosities and justifies and refreshes itself by practical applications. Yet it must go apart to work out its riddles. There is a rhythm in these things. Thought must be neither too close nor too aloof from actuality. There has been a need in the past century to take social and economic generalisations a little way off from current politics and active business and work them out into a new, broader, deeper, modern project. That in its main lines is done. Now, we, who have gone apart, have to come back. We have got clear to the conception of a possible world peace, a world economic system, a common currency, and unparalleled freedoms, growths and liberties. . . . ”

“Yes?” said Mrs. Rylands.

“We have at last made it seem extremely credible and possible.”


“And ‘how to get there?’ remains still with hardly the barest rudiments of an answer. A League of Nations. Vague projects of social revolution. Pious intentions. Practical futility.”

“And meanwhile?” whispered Mrs. Rylands.

“I do not even know whether the same type of mind that has mastered the first can work out the second problem. Perhaps there is a difference of personality needed, just as there is perhaps a difference between the pure scientific man and the scientific commercial man. It may be because I am realising that this business is entering upon a new phase that I find I am writing freely no longer and that I am restless and attracted by unseasonable hankerings for experience and at last — I confess it — disposed to go back to look into these queer troubles in England. I have had a dream, a ridiculous dream, of being revitalised. The Sacred Fount — of passion.”

He seemed to remember the presence of Miss Fenimore and abandoned what might have become a fresh confidence.

“I do not know. I do not know whether men of my kind have to turn into men of action or whether they have to turn over all they have thought-out and worked-out to men of action. A young man like your Philip attracts me, just because he seems to have all the vigour, flexibility and aggressiveness, that my type of withdrawn, persistently sceptical, habitually sceptical enquirer, does not possess. I do not know. I wish I did. And there you are! I am afraid I have left that question of yours, Mrs. Rylands, very largely open.”

He seemed to have finished and then he resumed.

“It may be that this concrete conception of human progress awaits its philosophy and its religion. Idea must clothe itself in will. The new civilisation will call for devotion — something more than the devotion of thinking and writing at one’s leisure. It may need martyrs — as well as recluses. And leaders as well as prophets. It will call for co-operative action, for wide disciplines. . . . ”

He stood up before the fire, a great shambling figure that cast a huge caricature in shadow on the wall opposite.

“I think I will go back to England in a day or so — anyhow — if only to see why people can struggle with such courage and passion for ends that do not seem to me to have any real relation to the Civilisation of the World at all. Hitherto I have been thinking so much of what I am after myself that it may be good for me, for a change, just to find out what other people are after. And why none of them seem to be after the only thing that I think makes life worth living.

“Yes,” he reflected, ”make your World Civilisation. That is just what Lady Catherine told me. You, with your questions, repeat the challenge. . . . I wonder if at bottom, Mrs. Rylands, both the scientific investigator and the philosopher are not profoundly indolent men. They work — I admit they work — continuously — but how they fortify themselves against interruptions and counter strokes and irrelevant issues!”

His thoughts seemed to Mrs. Rylands to glance suddenly in a different direction. ”Essentially“ he said, “they must be celibate. . . . ”

Mr. Sempack had come to the end of his meditations. His hostess and Miss Fenimore wished him good-night. He was left to consume two glasses of barley water and put out the lights.

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