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A Government Official by Ian Maclaren

 

Never had I met any man so methodical in his habits, so neat in his dress, so accurate in speech, so precise in manner as my fellow-lodger. When he took his bath in the morning I knew it was half-past seven, and when he rang for hot water that it was a quarter to eight Until a quarter-past he moved about the room in his slow, careful dressing, and then everything was quiet next door till half-past eight, when the low murmur of the Lord's Prayer concluded his devotions. Two minutes later he went downstairs—if he met a servant one could hear him say "Good morning"—and read his newspaper—he seldom had letters—till nine, when he rang for breakfast. Twenty-past nine he went upstairs and changed his coat, and he spent five minutes in the lobby selecting a pair of gloves, brushing his hat, and making a last survey for a speck of dust One glove he put on opposite the hat-stand, and the second on the doorstep, and when he touched the pavement you might have set your watch by nine-thirty. Once he was in the lobby at five and twenty minutes to ten, distressed and flurried.

"I cut my chin slightly when shaving," he explained, "and the wound persists in bleeding. It has an untidy appearance, and a drop of blood might fall on a letter."

The walk that morning was quite broken, and before reaching the corner, he had twice examined his chin with a handkerchief, and shaken his head as one whose position in life was now uncertain.

"It is nothing in itself," he said afterwards, with an apologetic allusion to his anxiety, "and might not matter to another man. But any little misadventure—a yesterday's collar or a razor cut, or even an inky finger—would render me helpless in dealing with people. They would simply look at the weak spot, and one would lose all authority. Some of the juniors smile when I impress on them to be very careful about their dress—quiet, of course, as becomes their situation, but unobjectionable. With more responsibility they will see the necessity of such details. I will remember your transparent sticking-plaster—a most valuable suggestion."

His name was Frederick Augustus Perkins; so ran the card he left on my table a week after I settled in the next rooms, and the problem of his calling gradually became a standing vexation. It fell under the class of conundrums, and one remembered from childhood that it is mean to be told the answer, so I might not say to Mister Perkins—for it was characteristic of the prim little man that no properly constituted person could have said Perkins—"By the way, what is your line of things?" or any more decorous rendering of my curiosity.

Mrs. Holmes, who was as a mother to Mr. Perkins and myself, as well as two younger men of literary pursuits and irregular habits, had a gift of charming irrelevance, and was able to combine allusions to Mr. Perkins' orderly life and the amatory tendencies of a new cook in a mosaic of enthralling interest.

"No, Betsy Jane has 'ad her notice and goes this day week; not that her cookin's bad, but her brothers don't know when to leave. One was 'ere no later than last night, though if he was her born brother, 'e 'ad a different father and mother, or my name ain't 'Olmes. 'Your brother, Betsy Jane,' says I, 'ought not to talk in a strange 'ouse on family affairs till eleven o'clock.'

"'E left at 'alf-past ten punctual,' says she, looking as hinnocent as a child, 'for I 'eard Mr. Perkins go up to 'is room as I was lettin' Jim out.

"'Betsy Jane,' I says, quite calm, 'where do you expeck to go to as doesn't know wot truth is?' for Mr. Perkins leaves 'is room has the 'all clock starts on eleven, and e's in 'is bedroom at the last stroke. If she 'adn't brought in Mr. Perkins she might'ave deceived me, gettin' old and not bein' so quick in my hearing as I was; but that settled her.

"'Alf-past," went on Mrs. Holmes, scornfully; "and 'im never varied two minutes the last ten years, except one night 'e fell asleep in 'is chair, being bad with hinfluenza.

"For a regular single gentleman as rises in the morning and goes out, and comes in and takes 'is dinner, and goes to bed like the Medes and Persians, I've never seen 'is equal; an' it's five-and-twenty years since 'Olmes died, 'avin' a bad liver through takin' gin for rheumatics; an' Liz-beth Peevey says to me, 'Take lodgers, Jemima; not that they pays for the trouble, but it 'ill keep an 'ouse.'...

"Mr. Perkins' business;" it was shabby, but the temptation came as a way of escape from the flow of Mrs. Holmes' autobiography; "now that I couldn't put a name on, for why, 'e never speaks about 'is affairs; just 'Good evening, Mrs.'Olmes; I'll take fish for breakfast to-morrow;' no more than that, or another blanket on 'is bed on the first of November, for it's by days, not cold, 'e goes...."

It was evident that I must solve the problem for myself.

Mr. Perkins could not be a city man, for in the hottest June he never wore a white waistcoat, nor had he the swelling gait of one who made an occasional coup in mines, and it went without saying that he did not write; a man who went to bed at eleven, and whose hair made no claim to distinction. One's mind fell back on the idea of law—conveyancing seemed probable—but his face lacked sharpness, and the alternative of confidential clerk to a firm of drysalters was contradicted by an air of authority that raised observations on the weather to the level of a state document The truth came upon me—a flash of inspiration—as I saw Mr. Perkins coming home one evening. The black frock-coat and waistcoat, dark grey trousers, spotless linen, high, old-fashioned collar, and stiff stock, were a symbol, and could only mean one profession.

"By the way, Mr. Perkins," for this was all one now required to know, "are you Income Tax or Stamps?"

"Neither, although my duty makes me familiar with every department in the Civil Service. I have the honour to be," and he cleared his throat with dignity, "a first-class clerk in the Schedule Office."

"Our work," he explained to me, "is very important, and in fact... vital to the administration of affairs. The efficiency of practical government depends on the accuracy of the forms issued, and every one is composed in our office.

"No, that is a common mistake," in reply to my shallow remark; "the departments do not draw up their own forms, and in fact they are not fit for such work. They send us a memorandum of what their officials wish to ask, and we put it into shape.

"It requires long experience and, I may say, some... ability to compose a really creditable schedule, one that will bring out every point clearly and exhaustively—in fact, I have ventured to call it a science"—here Mr. Perkins allowed himself to smile—"and it might be defined Schedulology.

"Yes, to see a double sheet of foolscap divided up into some twenty-four compartments, each with a question and a blank, space for the answer, is pleasing to the eye, very pleasing indeed.

"What annoys one," and Mr. Perkins became quite irritable, "is to examine a schedule after it has been filled and to discover how it has been misused—simply mangled.

"It is not the public simply who are to blame; they are, of course, quite hopeless, and have an insane desire to write their names all over the paper, with family details; but members of the Civil Service abuse the most admirable forms that ever came out of our office.

"Numerous? Yes, naturally so; and as governmental machinery turns on schedules they will increase every year. Could you guess, now, the number of different schedules under our charge?"

"Several hundred, perhaps."

Mr. Perkins smiled with much complacency. "Sixteen thousand four hundred and four, besides temporary ones that are only used in emergencies. One department has now reached twelve hundred and two; it has been admirably organised, and its secretary could tell you the subject of every form.

"Well, it does not become me to boast, but I have had the honour of contributing two hundred and twenty myself, and have composed forty-two more that have not yet been accepted.

"Well, yes," he admitted, with much modesty, "I have kept copies of the original drafts," and he showed me a bound volume of his works.

"An author? It is very good of you to say so," and Mr. Perkins seemed much pleased with the idea, twice smiling to himself during the evening, and saying as we parted, "It's my good fortune to have a large and permanent circulation."

All November Mr. Perkins was engaged with what he hoped would be one of his greatest successes.

"It's a sanitation schedule for the Education Department, and is, I dare to say, nearly perfect It has eighty-three questions on every point, from temperature to drains, and will present a complete view of the physical condition of primary schools.

"You have no idea," he continued, "what a fight I have had with our Head to get it through—eight drafts, each one costing three days' labour—but now he has passed it.

"'Perkins,' he said, 'this is the most exhaustive schedule you have ever drawn up, and I'm proud it's come through the hands of the drafting sub-department Whether I can approve it as Head of the publishing sub-department is very doubtful.'"

"Do you mean that the same man would approve your paper in one department to-day and...

"Quite so. It's a little difficult for an outsider to appreciate the perfect order—perhaps I might say symmetry—of the Civil Service," and Mr. Perkins spoke with a tone of condescension as to a little child. "The Head goes himself to the one sub-department in the morning and to the other in the afternoon, and he acts with absolute impartiality.

"Why, sir,"—Mr. Perkins began to warm and grow enthusiastic,—"I have received a letter from the other sub-department, severely criticising a draft he had highly commended in ours two days before, and I saw his hand in the letter... distinctly; an able review, too, very able indeed.

"'Very well put, Perkins,' he said to me himself; 'they've found the weak points; we must send an amended draft;' and so we did, and got a very satisfactory reply. It was a schedule about swine fever, 972 in the department of Agriculture. I have had the pleasure of reading it in public circulation when on my holidays."

"Does your Head sign the letters addressed to himself?"

"Certainly; letters between departments are always signed by the chief officer." Mr. Perkins seemed to have found another illustration of public ignorance, and recognised his duty as a missionary of officialism. "It would afford me much pleasure to give you any information regarding our excellent system, which has been slowly built up and will repay study; but you will excuse me this evening, as I am indisposed—a tendency to shiver which annoyed me in the office to-day."

Next morning I rose half an hour late, as Mr. Perkins did not take his bath, and was not surprised when Mrs. Holmes came to my room, overflowing with concern and disconnected speech.

"'E's that regular in 'is ways, that when 'Annah Mariar says 'is water's at 'is door at eight o'clock, I went up that 'urried that I couldn't speak; and I 'ears him speaking to 'isself, which is not what you would expect of him, he being the quietest gentleman as ever..."

"Is Mr. Perkins ill, do you mean?" for Mrs. Holmes seemed now in fair breath, and was always given to comparative reviews.

"So I knocks and says, 'Mr. Perkins, 'ow are you feeling?' and all I could 'ear was 'temperance'; it's little as he needs of that, for excepting a glass of wine at his dinner, and it might be something 'ot before going to bed in winter....

"So I goes in," resumed Mrs. Holmes, "an' there 'e was sittin' up in'is bed, with 'is face as red as fire, an' not knowing me from Adam. If it wasn't for 'is 'abits an' a-catching of 'is breath you wud 'ave said drink, for 'e says, 'How often have the drains been sluiced last year?'" After which I went up to Mr. Perkins' room without ceremony.

He was explaining, with much cogency, as it seemed to me, that unless the statistics of temperature embraced the whole year, they would afford no reliable conclusions regarding the sanitary condition of Board Schools; but when I addressed him by name with emphasis, he came to himself with a start:

"Excuse me, sir; I must apologise... I really did not hear... in fact," and then, as he realised his situation, Mr. Perkins was greatly embarrassed.

"Did I forget myself so far as... to send for you?... I was not feeling well. I have a slight difficulty in breathing, but I am quite able to go to the office... in a cab.

"You are most kind and obliging, but the schedule I am... it just comes and goes... thank you, no more water... is important and... intricate; no one... can complete it... except myself.

"With your permission I will rise... in a few minutes... ten o'clock, dear me... this is most unfortunate... not get down till eleven... I must really insist..." But the doctor had come, and Mr. Perkins obeyed on one condition.

"Yes, doctor, I prefer, if you please, to know; you see I am not a young person... nor nervous... thank you very much... quite so; pneumonia is serious... and double pneumonia dangerous, I understand... no, it is not that... one is not alarmed at my age, but... yes, I'll lie down... letter must go to office... dictate it to my friend... certain form... leave of absence, in fact... trouble you too much... medical certificate."

He was greatly relieved after this letter was sent by special messenger with the key of his desk, and quite refreshed when a clerk came up with the chiefs condolences.

"My compliments to Mr. Lighthead... an excellent young official, very promising indeed... and would he step upstairs for a minute... will excuse this undress in circumstances... really I will not speak any more.

"Those notes, Mr. Lighthead, will make my idea quite plain... and I hope to revise final draft... if God will... my dutiful respect to the Board, and kind regards to the chief clerk... it was kind of you to come, most thoughtful."

This young gentleman came into my room to learn the state of the case, and was much impressed.

"Really this kind of thing—Perkins gasping in bed and talking in his old-fashioned way—knocks one out of time, don't you know? If he had gone on much longer I should have bolted.

"Like him in the office? I should think so. You should have seen the young fellows to-day when they heard he was so ill. Of course we laugh a bit at him—Schedule Perkins he's called—because he's so dry and formal; but that's nothing.

"With all his little cranks, he knows his business better than any man in the department; and then he's a gentleman, d'y see? could not say a rude word or do a mean thing to save his life—not made that way, in fact.

"Let me just give you one instance—show you his sort Every one knew that he ought to have been chief clerk, and that Rodway's appointment was sheer influence. The staff was mad, and some one said Rodway need not expect to have a particularly good time.

"Perkins overheard him, and chipped in at once. 'Mr. Rodway'—you know his dry manner, wagging his eyeglass all the time—'is our superior officer, and we are bound to render him every assistance in our power, or,' and then he was splendid, 'resign our commissions.' Rodway, they say, has retired; but the worst of it is that as Perkins has been once passed over he 'ill not succeed.

"Perhaps it won't matter, poor chap. I say," said Lighthead, hurriedly, turning his back and examining a pipe on the mantel-piece, "do you think he is going to... I mean, has he a chance?"

"Just a chance, I believe. Have you been long with him?"

"That's not it—it's what he's done for a... for fellows. Strangers don't know Perkins. You might talk to him for a year, and never hear anything but shop. Then one day you get into a hole, and you would find out another Perkins.

"Stand by you?" and he wheeled round. "Rather, and no palaver either: with money and with time and with... other things that do a fellow more good than the whole concern, and no airs. There's more than one man in our office has cause to... bless Schedule Perkins.

"Let me tell you how he got... one chap out of the biggest scrape he'll ever fall into. Do you mind me smoking?" And then he made himself busy with matches and a pipe that was ever going out for the rest of the story.

"Well, you see, this man, clerk in our office, had not been long up from the country, and he was young. Wasn't quite bad, but he couldn't hold his own with older fellows.

"He got among a set that had suppers in their rooms, and gambled a bit, and he lost and borrowed, and... in fact, was stone broke.

"It's not very pleasant for a fellow to sit in his room a week before Christmas, and know that he may be cashiered before the holidays, and all through his own fault.

"If it were only himself, why, he might take his licking and go to the Colonies; but it was hard... on his mother—it's always going out, this pipe—when he was her only son, and she rather... believed in him.

"Didn't sleep much that night—told me himself afterwards—and he concluded that the best way out was to buy opium in the City next day, and take it—pretty stiff dose, you know—next night.

"Cowardly rather, of course, but it might be easier for the mater down in Devon—his mother, I mean—did I say he was Devon?—same county as myself—affair would be hushed up, and she would have... his memory clean.

"As it happened, though, he didn't buy any opium next day—didn't get the chance; for Perkins came round to his desk, and asked this young chap to have a bit of dinner with him—aye, and made him come.

"He had the jolliest little dinner ready you ever saw, and he insisted on the fellow smoking, though Perkins hates the very smell of 'baccy, and—well, he got the whole trouble out of him, except the opium.

"D'y think he lectured and scolded? Not a bit—that's not Perkins—he left the fool to do his own lecturing, and he did it stiff. I'll tell you what he said: 'Your health must have been much tried by this anxiety, so you must go down and spend Christmas with your mother, and I would venture to suggest that you take her a suitable gift.

"With regard to your debt, you will allow me,' and Perkins spoke as if he had been explaining a schedule, 'to take it over, on two conditions—that you repay me by instalments every quarter, and dine with me every Saturday evening for six months.

"See what he was after? Wanted to keep... the fellow straight, and cheer him up; and you've no idea how Perkins came out those Saturdays—capital stories as ever you heard—and he declared that it was a pleasure to him.

"'I am rather lonely,' he used to say, 'and it is most kind of a young man to sit with me.' Kind!"

"What was the upshot with your friend? Did he turn over a new leaf?"

"He 'ill never be the man that Perkins expects, but he's doing his level best, and... is rising in the office. Perkins swears by him, and that's made a man of the fellow.

"He's paid up the cash now, but... he can never pay up the kindness—confound those wax matches, they never strike—he told his mother last summer the whole story.

"She wrote to Perkins—of course I don't know what was in the letter—but Perkins had the fellow into his room. 'You ought to have regarded our transaction as confidential. I am grieved you mentioned my name;' and then as I—I mean, as the fellow—was going out, 'I'll keep that letter beside my commission,' said Perkins.

"If Perkins dies"—young men don't do that kind of thing, or else one would have thought—"it'ill be... a beastly shame," which was a terrible collapse, and Mr. Geoffrey Light-head, of the Schedule Department, left the house without further remark or even shaking hands..

That was Wednesday, and on Friday morning he appeared, flourishing a large blue envelope, sealed with an imposing device, marked "On Her Majesty's Service," and addressed to—

"Frederick Augustus Perkins, Esq.,

"First Class Clerk in the Schedule Department,

"Somerset House,

"London,"

An envelope any man might be proud to receive, and try to live up to for a week.

"Rodway has retired," he shouted, "and we can't be sure in the office, but the betting is four to one—I'm ten myself—that the Board has appointed Perkins Chief Clerk," and Lighthead did some steps of a triumphal character.

"The Secretary appeared this morning after the Board had met 'There's a letter their Honours wish taken at once to Mr. Perkins. Can any of you deliver it at his residence?' Then the other men looked at me, because—well, Perkins has been friendly with me; and that hansom came very creditably indeed.

"Very low, eh? Doctors afraid not last over the night—that's hard lines... but I say, they did not reckon on this letter. Could not you read it to him? You see this was his one ambition. He could never be Secretary, not able enough, but he was made for Chief Clerk. Now he's got it, or I would not have been sent out skimming with this letter. Read it to him, and the dear old chap will be on his legs in a week."

It seemed good advice, and this was what I read, while Perkins lay very still and did his best to breathe:—

"Dear Mr. Perkins,—

"I have the pleasure to inform you that the Board have appointed you Chief Clerk in the Schedule Department in succession to Gustavus Rodway, Esq., who retires, and their Honours desire me further to express their appreciation of your long and valuable service, and their earnest hope that you may be speedily restored to health. I am,

"Your obedient servant,

"Arthur Wraxhall,

"Secretary."

For a little time it was too much for Mr. Perkins, and then he whispered:—

"The one thing on earth I wished, and... more than I deserved... not usual, personal references in Board letters... perhaps hardly regular... but most gratifying... and... strengthening.

"I feel better already... some words I would like to hear again... thank you, where I can reach it... nurse will be so good as to read it"

Mr. Perkins revived from that hour, having his tonic administered at intervals, and astonished the doctors. On Christmas Eve he had made such progress that Lighthead was allowed to see him for five minutes.

"Heard about your calling three times a day... far too kind with all your work... and the messages from the staff... touched me to heart... never thought had so many friends... wished been more friendly myself.

"My promotion, too... hope may be fit for duty... can't speak much, but think I'll be spared... Almighty very good to me... Chief Clerk of Schedule Department... would you mind saying Lord's Prayer together... it sums up everything."

So we knelt one on each side of Perkins' bed, and I led with "Our Father"—the other two being once or twice quite audible. The choir of a neighbouring church were singing a Christmas carol in the street, and the Christ came into our hearts as a little child.