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

Chapter 2

Purity by Terror

A1ONG the claims made for that ideal life lived in the imaginations of the good folk of the Edwardian age was its Purity. Most people were supposed to be more or less pure, and in the case of the autobiographical type this was stressed very aggressively. I remember being told, on our second day’s acquaintance on a liner, by a proud and happy mother, apropos of a rather lumpish son of seventeen or eighteen who may or may not have been just out of earshot, “That boy is still as pure as the driven snow.” (I don’t think I saw his face.) But they kept up the make-believe so widely that mostly they did believe that the majority of the people about them who seemed to be leading pure lives were in fact leading pure lives. You have witnessed Mrs Tewler’s struggle to keep our hero pure. And here I recall my never to be sufficiently lamented Mrs Humbelay and how she was saying something about forgetting one’s dreams and imaginations, when she so unhappily went under the threshold of audibility and was lost to us.

Those people who still seek and profess purity in our harder world must murder and banish memories to a wonderful extent. True that almost all animals forget sexual experiences very readily. That is understandable of animals, who have their transitory annual rutting, because otherwise the creatures would always be in a state of unseasonable excitement. But man is an unseasonable creature and he does not naturally forget so completely. Consider all our pastors and teachers, and particularly consider the case of Mr Myame, His passion for Purity, for the complete suppression of any thought of an approach to a sexual act, in himself and others, assumed an undeniable frightfulness.

The English-speaking world has altered so rapidly that it is already difficult to believe that before the World War of 1914–18, The Times would rather have died of shame than have admitted such words as syphilis or venereal disease to the massive chastity of its columns, and that when that unforgettable heroine, Ettie Rout, came from New Zealand to distribute precautionary packets to the Anzac soldiers, telling them to control themselves if they could but use the packet if they couldn’t, the blushing military authorities, men no doubt leading exceptionally holy lives, who imagined that these unpleasant contagions, now rapidly fading out of existence in our franker world, were God’s vindictive device to punish impurity in his creatures, did their best to back up their God and suppress her. And Mr Myame, forgetting to his utmost ability, forgetting it may be altogether, or remembering only dimly as one is haunted by a horrible dream, fought as stoutly as the Blimpest of Colonel Blimps in the same losing fight against reality.

So, in accordance with the wishes of the late Mrs Tewler and after a noiseless vigil in the Joseph Hart dormitory, followed by a close inspection of Edward Albert’s bed clothes, he called the young man into his study and handed him a serious-looking volume. It was only a few days before Edward Albert became an adder. Mr Myame gave him the book and he charged his account for it. Whether he would have done so after the great shock is an idle speculation. “I want you to read this very very carefully indeed, Tewler,” he said.

“There are things in this. . . . It is high time you knew them.”

Mr Myame paused. “It’s a book for your very private reading. I should be careful not to leave it about or let it fall into the hands of your younger schoolfellows.”

The book was entitled Dr Scaber’s What a Young Man Should Know. It had been, it said in a brief preface, a guide and help to many generations of struggling souls, so that it was at latest Victorian. It had revealed the facts of life frankly and helpfully to them and saved them from terrible dangers. There was no indication of what sort of Doctorate Dr Scaber held, nor indeed any biographical material whatever. Edward Albert read, at first with curiosity and then with a deepening dismay. “Gaw!” he whispered to himself. “You can’t be too careful. If only I’d known.”

The little book told of the stupendous dangers and horrors of the vicious life in either its social or solitary aspect. The latter it pursued with even greater vehemence than the former. On the heels of those who departed in the least from the path of perfect purity stalked the most frightful forms of suffering and decay, rotting bodies, racking pains, ebbing strength, attenuation, a peculiar expression of face, impotence, imbecility, idiocy, madness. A cold perspiration bedewed the reader’s brow.

He had completely forgotten when the thing began with him. It had crept upon him between sleeping and waking.

Now, with a gathering urgency, Nature was at work in Edward Albert, in her own clumsy way inciting him to acts conducive to reproduction. The life cycle of Homo, we have already remarked, is far more primitive than that of most other land animals; among other remote ancestral aspects still traceable in his life, the spawning impulse, like the urgencies of creatures who live in warm tropical seas, recurs mensually and not annually. In that briefer rhythm these creatures are stirred up to seek relief for their accumulating milt or spawn. Nature is a sloven, she never cleans up completely after her advances, and so we abound in vestigial structures, and our beings are haunted by the ghosts of rhythms that served her in the past. In the Hominida the ghost of the lunar cycle has materialised again. The solar rut guides us to St Valentine’s Day and the merry merry springtime, but the lunar rut also has revived and is still effective with us. It causes a recurrent uneasiness, we are distraught and nervous, it breaks down control by night and we dream. In some manner relief comes to us and must come. Since man is no longer a tropical amphibian, this necessity for “relief” rarely coincides with the phases of his more elaborate social life. “You might,” deliberated Mrs Humbelay, “call it a side issue. And yet it’s hardly that, is it? But what there is to make all this fuss about. . . . ”

“If I pray,” stipulated Edward Albert in his distress. But he was beginning to lose whatever confidence he had ever had in the efficacy of prayer. There is often such a whimsicality in His answers, that you cannot be too careful how you invoke Him. All through his teens Edward Albert’s mind had black storms of anxiety. Dr Scaber’s shadow lay across his mind. He had, it seems, committed that Sin against the Holy Ghost for which there is no forgiveness. Dr Scaber said as much.

Since most of the people in the world about him were maintaining the same silences and concealments as himself, he felt his case was a dark, exceptional one. His dreams, his almost involuntary derelictions were his own peculiar guilty secret. It was not until he was past the age of eighteen that the accumulating effect of chance jests and rude remarks from various acquaintances, led to a dawning realisation that his peculiar uncleanness was neither so rare nor perhaps so heinous as he had supposed. But he was ashamed of it with a slowly fading shame to the very end of his career.

It took still longer for him to realise that there could be any sort of impurity about the female of the species Homo Tewler. He%would have gratified that mother on the liner by his fantastic ignorance about women. He was as pure as her own dear boy. He never imagined that girls and women too had desires or fantasies — until the crisis of “his first married life of which you will be told in due course. The poor dears in those dim religious days, a third of a century ago, were being kept more blankly ignorant about themselves — until terrific things happened to them — than their brothers. They too peeped and wondered and had their justifiable terrors.

Yet all the time, urged on by implacable Nature, and stimulated rather than repelled by the enormity imposed upon the whole business by the good Dr Scaber, Edward Albert was meanly and furtively trying to know, doing his utmost to know, about It. And also not to let anyone know that he was trying to know. He had extremely little curiosity about women except as the media of It. It was It he was after.

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