(A Moral Story for the Middle-aged)
Seated in the well-appointed library of Blight Hall, John Blighter, Seventeenth Earl of Blight, bowed his head in his hands and gave himself up to despair. The day of reckoning had come.
Were appearances not so deceptive, one would have said that Lord Blight (“Blight,” as he was known familiarly to his friends) was a man to be envied. In a revolving book-case in the middle of the spacious library were countless treasured volumes, including a complete edition of Thackeray; outside in the well-kept grounds of the estate was a new lawn-mower; a bottle of sherry, freshly uncorked, stood upon the sideboard in the dining-room. But worldly possessions are not everything. An untroubled mind, as Shakespeare knew (even if he didn’t actually say it), is more to be valued than riches. The seventeenth Earl of Blight’s mind was not untroubled. His conscience was gnawing him.
Some people would say, no doubt, that his conscience was too sensitive. True, there were episodes in his past life of which in later years he could not wholly approve; but is not this the case with every one of us? Far better, as must often have occurred to Milton, to strive for the future than to regret the past. Ten years ago Lord Blight had been plain John Blighter, with no prospects in front of him. Realizing that he could expect little help from others, he decided to push for himself. He began by pushing three cousins over the cliffs at Scarborough, thus becoming second heir to the earldom. A week later he pushed an elder brother over the same cliff, and was openly referred to in the Press as the next bearer of the title. Barely a fortnight had elapsed before a final push diverted the last member of the family (a valued uncle) into the ever-changing sea, the venue in this case being Whitby, presumably in order to avoid suspicion.
But all this had happened ten years ago. The past is the past, as Wordsworth probably said to Coleridge more than once. It was time for Lord Blight to forget these incidents of his eager and impetuous youth. Yet somehow he could not. Within the last few days his conscience had begun to gnaw him, and in his despair he told himself that at last the day of reckoning had come. Poor Blight! It is difficult to withhold our sympathy from him.
The door opened, and his wife, the Countess of Blight, came into the library.
“Blight!” she whispered. “My poor Blight! What has happened?”
He looked up haggardly.
“Gertie,” he said, for that was her name, “it is all over. My sins have found me out.”
“Not sins,” she said gently. “Mistakes.”
“Mistakes, yes–you are right.” He stretched out a hand, took a letter from the desk in front of him and gave it to her. “Read that.” With a groan he buried his head in his hands again. She took it and read, slowly and wonderingly, these words:–
“To lawn-mower as delivered, L5 17s. 6d.”
Lord Blight looked up with an impatient ejaculation “Give it to me,” he said in some annoyance, snatching it away from her and throwing it into the waste-paper basket. “Here, this is the one. Read it; read it quickly; for we must decide what to do.”
She read it with starting eyes.
“DEAR SIR,–I am prepared to lend you anything from L10 to L10,000 on your note-of-hand alone. Should you wish–“
“D–n!” said the seventeenth Earl of Blight. “Here, where is the blessed thing?” He felt in his pockets. “I must have–I only had it a–Ah, here it is. Perhaps I had better read it to you this time.” He put on his spectacles–a present from an aunt–and read as follows:–
“MY LORD,–We regret to inform you that a claimant to the title has arisen. It seems that, soon after the death of his first wife, the sixteenth Earl of Blight contracted a second and secret marriage to Ellen Podby, by whom he had eleven sons, the eldest of whom is now asserting his right to the earldom and estates. Trusting to be favoured with your instructions in the matter, We are, my lord,
“BILLINGS, BILLINGS & BILLINGS.”
Gertie (Countess of Blight) looked at her husband in horror.
“Eleven!” she cried.
“Eleven,” said the Earl gloomily.
Then a look of grim determination came into his eyes. With the air of one who might have been quoting Keats, but possibly wasn’t, he said firmly:
“What man has done, man can do.”
That evening the Countess of Blight gave orders for eleven spare bedrooms to be got ready.
On the morning after the arrival of the eleven Podbys (as they had been taught to call themselves) John, seventeenth Earl of Blight, spoke quite frankly to Algernon, the eldest.
“After all, my dear Algernon,” he said, “we are cousins. There is no need for harsh words between us. All I ask is that you should forbear to make your claim until I have delivered my speech in the House of Lords on the Coast Erosion Bill, upon which I feel deeply. Once the Bill is through, I shall be prepared to retire in your favour. Meanwhile let us all enjoy together the simple pleasures of Blight Hall.”
Algernon, a fair young man with a meaningless expression, replied suitably.
So for some days the eleven Podbys gave themselves up to pleasure. Percy, the youngest, though hardly of an age to appreciate the mechanism of it, was allowed to push the lawn-mower. Lancelot and Herbert, who had inherited the Podby intellect, were encouraged to browse around the revolving bookcase, from which they frequently extracted one of the works of Thackeray, replacing it again after a glance at the title page; while on one notable occasion the Earl of Blight took Algernon into the dining-room at about 11.31 in the morning and helped him to a glass of sherry and a slice of sultana cake. In this way the days passed happily, and confidence between the eleven Podbys and their cousin was established.
It was on a fair spring morning, just a week after their arrival, that the Countess of Blight came into the music-room (where Algernon was humming a tune) and said, “Ah, Algernon, my husband was looking for you. I think he has some little excursion to propose. What a charming day, is it not? You will find him in the library.”
As Algernon entered the library, Lord Blight looked up from the map he was studying and nodded.
“I thought,” he said, coming to the point at once, “that it might amuse you to drive over with me to Flamborough Head. The view from the top of the cliff is considered well worth a visit. I don’t know if your tastes lie in that direction at all?”
Algernon was delighted at the idea, and replied that nothing would give him greater pleasure than to accompany Lord Blight.
“Excellent. Perhaps we had better take some sandwiches and make a day of it.”
Greatly elated at the thought of a day by the sea, Lord Blight went out and gave instructions to the Countess for sandwiches to be cut.
“In two packets, my love,” he added, “in case Algernon and I get separated.”
Half an hour later they started off together in high spirits.
* * * * *
It was dark before the seventeenth Earl of Blight returned to the house and joined the others at the dinner-table. His face wore a slightly worried expression.
“The fact is, my dear,” he said, in answer to a question from the Countess, “I am a little upset about Algernon. I fear we have lost him.”
“Algernon?” said the Countess in surprise.
“Yes. We were standing at the top of Flamborough Head, looking down into the sea, when–” He paused and tapped his glass, “Sherry, Jenkins,” he said, catching the butler’s eye.
“I beg your pardon, my lord.”
“–When poor Algernon stumbled and–Do any of you boys know if your brother can swim?”
Everard, the ninth, said that Algernon had floated once in the Paddington Baths, but couldn’t swim.
“Ah! I was hoping–But in any case, coming into the water from that height–Well, well, we must face our troubles bravely. Another glass of sherry, Jenkins.”
As they passed through the hall on their way to the drawing-room, Lord Blight stopped a moment at the aneroid barometer and gave it an encouraging tap.
“It looks like another fine day to-morrow,” he said to Cuthbert, the second Podby. “The panorama from the Scalby cliffs is unrivalled. We might drive over and have a look at it.”
Fortunately the weather held up. A week later the Podby family had been thinned down to five, and the seventeenth Earl of Blight was beginning to regain his usual equanimity. His health too was benefiting by the constant sea air and change; for, in order that no melancholy associations should cast a gloom over their little outings, he took care to visit a different health-resort each time, feeling that no expense or trouble should be spared in a matter of this kind. It was wonderful with what vigour and alertness of mind he sat down in the evenings to the preparation of his speech on the Coast Erosion Bill.
One night after dinner, when all the Podby family (Basil and Percy) had retired to bed, Gertie (Countess of Blight) came into her husband’s library and, twirling the revolving bookcase with restless fingers, asked if she could interrupt him for a moment.
“Yes?” he said, looking up at her.
“I am anxious, Blight,” she answered. “Anxious about Percy.”
“So am I, my love,” he responded gravely. “I fear that to-morrow”–he consulted a leather pocket-book–“no, the day after to-morrow, something may happen to him. I have an uneasy feeling. It may be that I am superstitious. Yet something tells me that in the Book of Fate the names of Percy and Bridlington”–he consulted his diary again–“yes, Bridlington; the names, as I was saying, of–“
She interrupted him with an impatient gesture.
“You misunderstand me,” she said. “That is not why I am anxious. I am anxious because of something I have just learnt about Percy. I am afraid he is going to be–“
“Troublesome?” suggested Lord Blight.
“I have learnt to-day,” she explained, “that he has a horror of high places.”
“You mean that on the cliffs of, as it might be, Bridlington some sudden unbridled terror may cause him to hurl himself–“
“You will never get him to the cliffs of Bridlington. He can’t even look out of a first-floor window. He won’t walk up the gentlest slope. That is why he is always playing with the lawn-mower.”
The Earl frowned and tapped on his desk with a penholder.
“This is very grave news, Gertie,” he said. “How is it that the boy comes to have this unmanly weakness?”
“It seems he has always had it.”
“He should have been taken in hand. Even now perhaps it is not too late. It is our duty to wean him from these womanish apprehensions.”
“Too late. Unless you carried him up there in a sack–?”
“No, no,” protested the Earl vigorously. “My dear, the seventeenth Earl of Blight carrying a sack! Impossible!”
For a little while there was silence while they brooded over the tragic news.
“Perhaps,” said the Countess at last, “there are other ways. It may be that Percy is fond of fishing.”
Lord Blight shifted uncomfortably in his seat. When he spoke it was with a curiously apologetic air.
“I am afraid, my dear,” he said, “that you will think me foolish. No doubt I am. You must put it down to the artistic temperament. But I tell you quite candidly that it is as impossible for me to lose Percy in a boating accident as it would be for–shall I say?–Sargent to appear as ‘Hamlet’ or a violinist to wish to exhibit at the Royal Academy. One has one’s art, one’s medium of expression. It is at the top of the high cliff with an open view of the sea that I express myself best. Also,” he added with some heat, “I feel strongly that what was good enough for Percy’s father, ten brothers, three half-brothers, not to mention his cousin, should be good enough for Percy.”
The Countess of Blight moved sadly from the room.
“Well,” she said as she stopped for a moment at the door, “we must hope for the best. Perhaps Percy will overcome this aversion in time. You might talk seriously to him to-morrow about it.”
“To-morrow,” said the Earl, referring once more to his diary, “Basil and I are visiting the romantic scarps of Filey.”
On the day following the unfortunate accident at Filey the Earl and Countess of Blight reclined together upon the cliffs of Bridlington.
“If we only had had Percy here!” sighed the Earl.
“It was something to have got him as far as the beach,” said the Countess hopefully. “Perhaps in time–a little higher every day–“
The Earl sighed again.
“The need for self-expression comes strongly upon the artist at a time like this,” he said. “It is not for me to say that I have genius–“
“It is for me to say it, dear,” said his wife.
“Well, well, perhaps in my own line. And at the full height of one’s powers to be baulked by the morbidity, for I can call it nothing else, of a Percy Podby! Gertie,” he went on dreamily, “I wish I could make you understand something of the fascination which an artist finds in his medium. To be lying here, at the top of the world, with the lazy sea crawling beneath us so many feet below–“
“Look,” said the Countess suddenly. She pointed to the beach.
The Earl rose, stretched his head over the edge and gazed down.
“Percy,” he said.
“Yes. Almost exactly beneath us.”
“If anything fell upon him from here,” said the Earl thoughtfully, “it is quite possible that–“
Suddenly the fascination whereof he had spoken to her came irresistibly home to the Countess.
“Yes,” she said, as if in a trance, “if anything fell upon him from here–” and she gave her husband a thoughtful push–“it–is–quite–possible–that–“
At the word “that” the Earl reached Percy, and simultaneously the title expired.
Poor Blight!–or perhaps, since the title was never really his, we should say “Poor Blighter!” It is difficult to withhold our sympathy from him.