“My uncle,” said the man with the glass eye, “was what you might call a hemi-semi-demi millionaire. He was worth about a hundred and twenty thousand. Quite. And he left me all his money.”
I glanced at the shiny sleeve of his coat, and my eye travelled up to the frayed collar.
“Every penny,” said the man with the glass eye, and I caught the active pupil looking at me with a touch of offence.
“I’ve never had any windfalls like that,” I said, trying to speak enviously and propitiate him.
“Even a legacy isn’t always a blessing,” he remarked with a sigh, and with an air of philosophical resignation he put the red nose and the wiry moustache into his tankard for a space.
“Perhaps not,” I said.
“He was an author, you see, and he wrote a lot of books.”
“That was the trouble of it all.” He stared at me with the available eye to see if I grasped his statement, then averted his face a little and produced a toothpick.
“You see,” he said, smacking his lips after a pause, “it was like this. He was my uncle--my maternal uncle. And he had--what shall I call it?--a weakness for writing edifying literature. Weakness is hardly the word--downright mania is nearer the mark. He’d been librarian in a Polytechnic, and as soon as the money came to him he began to indulge his ambition. It’s a simply extraordinary and incomprehensible thing to me. Here was a man of thirty-seven suddenly dropped into a perfect pile of gold, and he didn’t go--not a day’s bust on it. One would think a chap would go and get himself dressed a bit decent--say a couple of dozen pairs of trousers at a West End tailor’s; but he never did. You’d hardly believe it, but when he died he hadn’t even a gold watch. It seems wrong for people like that to have money. All he did was just to take a house, and order in pretty nearly five tons of books and ink and paper, and set to writing edifying literature as hard as ever he could write. I can’t understand it! But he did. The money came to him, curiously enough, through a maternal uncle of his, unexpected like, when he was seven-and-thirty. My mother, it happened, was his only relation in the wide, wide world, except some second cousins of his. And I was her only son. You follow all that? The second cousins had one only son, too, but they brought him to see the old man too soon. He was rather a spoilt youngster, was this son of theirs, and directly he set eyes on my uncle, he began bawling out as hard as he could. ‘Take ‘im away--er, ‘ he says, ‘take ‘im away, ‘ and so did for himself entirely. It was pretty straight sailing, you’d think, for me, eh? And my mother, being a sensible, careful woman, settled the business in her own mind long before he did.
“He was a curious little chap, was my uncle, as I remember him. I don’t wonder at the kid being scared. Hair, just like these Japanese dolls they sell, black and straight and stiff all round the brim and none in the middle, and below, a whitish kind of face and rather large dark grey eyes moving about behind his spectacles. He used to attach a great deal of importance to dress, and always wore a flapping overcoat and a big-brimmed felt hat of a most extraordinary size. He looked a rummy little beggar, I can tell you. Indoors it was, as a rule, a dirty red flannel dressing-gown and a black skull-cap he had. That black skull-cap made him look like the portraits of all kinds of celebrated people. He was always moving about from house to house, was my uncle, with his chair which had belonged to Savage Landor, and his two writing-tables, one of Carlyle’s and the other of Shelley’s, so the dealer told him, and the completest portable reference library in England, he said he had--and he lugged the whole caravan, now to a house at Down, near Darwin’s old place, then to Reigate, near Meredith, then off to Haslemere, then back to Chelsea for a bit, and then up to Hampstead. He knew there was something wrong with his stuff, but he never knew there was anything wrong with his brains. It was always the air, or the water, or the altitude, or some tommy-rot like that. ‘So much depends on environment, ‘ he used to say, and stare at you hard, as if he half suspected you were hiding a grin at him somewhere under your face. ‘So much depends on environment to a sensitive mind like mine.’
“What was his name? You wouldn’t know it if I told you. He wrote nothing that anyone has ever read--nothing. No one could read it. He wanted to be a great teacher, he said, and he didn’t know what he wanted to teach any more than a child. So he just blethered at large about Truth and Righteousness, and the Spirit of History, and all that. Book after book he wrote and published at his own expense. He wasn’t quite right in his head, you know, really; and to hear him go on at the critics--not because they slated him, mind you--he liked that--but because they didn’t take any notice of him at all. ‘What do the nations want?’ he would ask, holding out his brown old claw. ‘Why, teaching--guidance! They are scattered upon the hills like sheep without a shepherd. There is War and Rumours of War, the unlaid Spirit of Discord abroad in the land, Nihilism, Vivisection, Vaccination, Drunkenness, Penury, Want, Socialistic Error, Selfish Capital! Do you see the clouds, Ted?’--My name, you know--’Do you see the clouds lowering over the land? and behind it all--the Mongol waits!’ He was always very great on Mongols and the Spectre of Socialism, and such-like things.
“Then out would come his finger at me, and with his eyes all afire and his skull-cap askew, he would whisper: ‘And here am I. What do I want? Nations to teach. Nations! I say it with all modesty, Ted, I could. I would guide them; nay! but I will guide them to a safe haven, to the land of Righteousness, flowing with milk and honey.’
“That’s how he used to go on. Ramble, rave about the nations, and righteousness, and that kind of thing. Kind of mincemeat of Bible and blethers. From fourteen up to three-and-twenty, when I might have been improving my mind, my mother used to wash me and brush my hair (at least in the earlier years of it), with a nice parting down the middle, and take me, once or twice a week, to hear this old lunatic jabber about things he had read of in the morning papers, trying to do it as much like Carlyle as he could, and I used to sit according to instructions, and look intelligent and nice, and pretend to be taking it all in. Afterwards I used to go of my own free will, out of a regard for the legacy. I was the only person that used to go and see him. He wrote, I believe, to every man who made the slightest stir in the world, sending him a copy or so of his books, and inviting him to come and talk about the nations to him; but half of them didn’t answer, and none ever came. And when the girl let you in--she was an artful bit of goods, that girl--there were heaps of letters on the hall-seat waiting to go off, addressed to Prince Bismark, the President of the United States, and such-like people. And one went up the staircase and along the cobwebby passage, --the housekeeper drank like fury, and his passages were always cobwebby, --and found him at last, with books turned down all over the room, and heaps of torn paper on the floor, and telegrams and newspapers littered about, and empty coffee-cups and half-eaten bits of toast on the desk and the mantel. You’d see his back humped up, and his hair would be sticking out quite straight between the collar of that dressing-gown thing and the edge of the skull-cap.