Though I had not seen my distant relative for years–not, in fact, since he was obliged to give Vancouver Island up as a bad job–I knew him at once, when, with head a little on one side, and tea-cup held high, as if, to confer a blessing, he said: “Hallo!” across the Club smoking-room.
Thin as a lath–not one ounce heavier–tall, and very upright, with his pale forehead, and pale eyes, and pale beard, he had the air of a ghost of a man. He had always had that air. And his voice–that matter-of-fact and slightly nasal voice, with its thin, pragmatical tone–was like a wraith of optimism, issuing between pale lips. I noticed; too, that his town habiliments still had their unspeakable pale neatness, as if, poor things, they were trying to stare the daylight out of countenance.
He brought his tea across to my bay window, with that wistful sociability of his, as of a man who cannot always find a listener.
“But what are you doing in town?” I said. “I thought you were in Yorkshire with your aunt.”
Over his round, light eyes, fixed on something in the street, the lids fell quickly twice, as the film falls over the eyes of a parrot.
“I’m after a job,” he answered. “Must be on the spot just now.”
And it seemed to me that I had heard those words from him before.
“Ah, yes,” I said, “and do you think you’ll get it?”
But even as I spoke I felt sorry, remembering how many jobs he had been after in his time, and how soon they ended when he had got them.
“Oh, yes! They ought to give it me,” then added rather suddenly: “You never know, though. People are so funny!”
And crossing his thin legs, he went on to tell me, with quaint impersonality, a number of instances of how people had been funny in connection with jobs he had not been given.
“You see,” he ended, “the country’s in such a state–capital going out of it every day. Enterprise being killed all over the place. There’s practically nothing to be had!”
“Ah!” I said, “you think it’s worse, then, than it used to be?”
He smiled; in that smile there was a shade of patronage.
“We’re going down-hill as fast as ever we can. National character’s losing all its backbone. No wonder, with all this molly-coddling going on!”
“Oh!” I murmured, “molly-coddling? Isn’t that excessive?”
“Well! Look at the way everything’s being done for them! The working classes are losing their self-respect as fast as ever they can. Their independence is gone already!”
“Sure of it! I’ll give you an instance—-” and he went on to describe to me the degeneracy of certain working men employed by his aunt and his eldest brother Claud and his youngest brother Alan.
“They don’t do a stroke more than they’re obliged,” he ended; “they know jolly well they’ve got their Unions, and their pensions, and this Insurance, to fall back on.”
It was evidently a subject on which he felt strongly.
“Yes,” he muttered, “the nation is being rotted down.”
And a faint thrill of surprise passed through me. For the affairs of the nation moved him so much more strongly than his own. His voice already had a different ring, his eyes a different look. He eagerly leaned forward, and his long, straight backbone looked longer and straighter than ever. He was less the ghost of a man. A faint flush even had come into his pale cheeks, and he moved his well-kept hands emphatically.
“Oh, yes!” he said: “The country is going to the dogs, right enough; but you can’t get them to see it. They go on sapping and sapping the independence of the people. If the working man’s to be looked after, whatever he does–what on earth’s to become of his go, and foresight, and perseverance?”
In his rising voice a certain piquancy was left to its accent of the ruling class by that faint twang, which came, I remembered, from some slight defect in his tonsils.