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.
“Mark my words! So long as we’re on these lines, we shall do nothing. It’s going against evolution. They say Darwin’s getting old-fashioned; all I know is, he’s good enough for me. Competition is the only thing.”
“But competition,” I said, “is bitter cruel, and some people can’t stand against it!” And I looked at him rather hard: “Do you object to putting any sort of floor under the feet of people like that?”
He let his voice drop a little, as if in deference to my scruples.
“Ah!” he said; “but if you once begin this sort of thing, there’s no end to it. It’s so insidious. The more they have, the more they want; and all the time they’re losing fighting power. I’ve thought pretty deeply about this. It’s shortsighted; it really doesn’t do!”
“But,” I said, “surely you’re not against saving people from being knocked out of time by old age, and accidents like illness, and the fluctuations of trade?”
“Oh!” he said, “I’m not a bit against charity. Aunt Emma’s splendid about that. And Claud’s awfully good. I do what I can, myself.” He looked at me, so queerly deprecating, that I quite liked him at that moment. At heart — I felt he was a good fellow. “All I think is,” he went on, “that to give them something that they can rely on as a matter of course, apart from their own exertions, is the wrong principle altogether,” and suddenly his voice began to rise again, and his eyes to stare. “I’m convinced that all this doing things for other people, and bolstering up the weak, is rotten. It stands to reason that it must be.”
He had risen to his feet, so preoccupied with the wrongness of that principle that he seemed to have forgotten my presence. And as he stood there in the window the light was too strong for him. All the thin incapacity of that shadowy figure was pitilessly displayed; the desperate narrowness in that long, pale face; the wambling look of those pale, well-kept hands — all that made him such a ghost of a man. But his nasal, dogmatic voice rose and rose.
“There’s nothing for it but bracing up! We must cut away all this State support; we must teach them to rely on themselves. It’s all sheer pauperisation.”
And suddenly there shot through me the fear that he might burst one of those little blue veins in his pale forehead, so vehement had he become; and hastily I changed the subject.
“Do you like living up there with your aunt?” I asked: “Isn’t it a bit quiet?”
He turned, as if I had awakened him from a dream.
“Oh, well!” he said, “it’s only till I get this job.”
“Let me see — how long is it since you ——?”
“Four years. She’s very glad to have me, of course.”
“And how’s your brother Claud?”
“Oh! All right, thanks; a bit worried with the estate. The poor old gov’nor left it in rather a mess, you know.”
“Ah! Yes. Does he do other work?”
“Oh! Always busy in the parish.”
“And your brother Richard?”
“He’s all right. Came home this year. Got just enough to live on, with his pension — hasn’t saved a rap, of course.”
“And Willie? Is he still delicate?”
“Easy job, his, you know. And even if his health does give out, his college pals will always find him some sort of sinecure. So jolly popular, old Willie!”
“And Alan? I haven’t heard anything of him since his Peruvian thing came to grief. He married, didn’t he?”
“Rather! One of the Burleys. Nice girl — heiress; lot of property in Hampshire. He looks after it for her now.”
“Doesn’t do anything else, I suppose?”
“Keeps up his antiquarianism.”
I had exhausted the members of his family.
Then, as though by eliciting the good fortunes of his brothers I had cast some slur upon himself, he said suddenly: “If the railway had come, as it ought to have, while I was out there, I should have done quite well with my fruit farm.”
“Of course,” I agreed; “it was bad luck. But after all, you’re sure to get a job soon, and — so long as you can live up there with your aunt — you can afford to wait, and not bother.”
“Yes,” he murmured. And I got up.
“Well, it’s been very jolly to hear about you all!”
He followed me out.
“Awfully glad, old man,” he said, “to have seen you, and had this talk. I was feeling rather low. Waiting to know whether I get that job — it’s not lively.”
He came down the Club steps with me. By the door of my cab a loafer was standing; a tall tatterdemalion with a pale, bearded face. My distant relative fended him away, and leaning through the window, murmured: “Awful lot of these chaps about now!”
For the life of me I could not help looking at him very straight. But no flicker of apprehension crossed his face.
“Well, good-by again!” he said: “You’ve cheered me up a lot!”
I glanced back from my moving cab. Some monetary transaction was passing between him and the loafer, but, short-sighted as I am, I found it difficult to decide which of those tall, pale, bearded figures was giving the other one a penny. And by some strange freak an awful vision shot up before me — of myself, and my distant relative, and Claud, and Richard, and Willie, and Alan, all suddenly relying on ourselves. I took out my handkerchief to mop my brow; but a thought struck me, and I put it back. Was it possible for me, and my distant relatives, and their distant relatives, and so on to infinity of those who be longed to a class provided by birth with a certain position, raised by Providence on to a platform made up of money inherited, of interest, of education fitting us for certain privileged pursuits, of friends similarly endowed, of substantial homes, and substantial relatives of some sort or other, on whom we could fall back — was it possible for any of us ever to be in the position of having to rely absolutely on ourselves? For several minutes I pondered that question; and slowly I came to the conclusion that, short of crime, or that unlikely event, marooning, it was not possible. Never, never — try as we might — could any single one of us be quite in the position of one of those whose approaching pauperisation my distant relative had so vehemently deplored. We were already pauperised. If we served our country, we were pensioned. . . . If we inherited land, it could not be taken from us. If we went into the Church, we were there for life, whether we were suitable or no. If we attempted the more hazardous occupations of the law, medicine, the arts, or business, there were always those homes, those relations, those friends of ours to fall back on, if we failed. No! We could never have to rely entirely on ourselves; we could never be pauperised more than we were already! And a light burst in on me. That explained why my distant relative felt so keenly. It bit him, for he saw, of course, how dreadful it would be for these poor people of the working classes when legislation had succeeded in placing them in the humiliating position in which we already were — the dreadful position of having something to depend on apart from our own exertions, some sort of security in our lives. I saw it now. It was his secret pride, gnawing at him all the time, that made him so rabid on the point. He was longing, doubtless, day and night, not to have had a father who had land, and had left a sister well enough off to keep him while he was waiting for his job. He must be feeling how horribly degrading was the position of Claud — inheriting that land; and of Richard, who, just because he had served in the Indian Civil Service, had got to live on a pension all the rest of his days; and of Willie, who was in danger at any moment, if his health — always delicate — gave out, of having a sinecure found for him by his college friends; and of Alan, whose educated charm had enabled him to marry an heiress and live by managing her estates. All, all sapped of go and foresight and perseverance by a cruel Providence! That was what he was really feeling, and concealing, be cause he was too well-bred to show his secret grief. And I felt suddenly quite warm toward him, now that I saw how he was suffering. I understood how bound he felt in honour to combat with all his force this attempt to place others in his own distressing situation. At the same time I was honest enough to confess to myself sitting there in the cab — that I did not personally share that pride of his, or feel that I was being rotted by my own position; I even felt some dim gratitude that if my powers gave out at any time, and I had not saved anything, I should still not be left destitute to face the prospect of a bleak and impoverished old age; and I could not help a weak pleasure in the thought that a certain relative security was being guaranteed to those people of the working classes who had never had it before. At the same moment I quite saw that to a prouder and stronger heart it must indeed be bitter to have to sit still under your own security, and even more bitter to have to watch that pauperising security coming closer and closer to others — for the generous soul is always more concerned for others than for himself. No doubt, I thought, if truth were known, my distant relative is consumed with longing to change places with that loafer who tried to open the door of my cab — for surely he must see, as I do, that that is just what he himself — having failed to stand the pressure of competition in his life — would be doing if it were not for the accident of his birth, which has so lamentably insured him against coming to that.
“Yes,” I thought, “you have learnt something today; it does not do, you see, hastily to despise those distant relatives of yours, who talk about pauperising and molly-coddling the lower classes. No, no! One must look deeper than that! One must have generosity!”
And with that I stopped the cab and got out for I wanted a breath of air.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54