Release date: April 30, 2017
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Print pages: 320
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Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island
THE Blettsworthys, my family, have always been a very scrupulous family and gentle, the Wiltshire Blettsworthys perhaps even more so than the Sussex branch. I may perhaps be forgiven if I say a word or two about them before I come to my own story. I am proud of my ancestors and of the traditions of civilised conduct and genial living they have handed down to me; the thought of them, as I shall tell, has supported and sustained me on some difficult occasions. “What,” I have asked, “should a Blettsworthy do?” and I have at least attempted to make my conduct a proper answer.
There have always been Blettsworthys in English life in the south and west of England, and they have always been very much the same sort of people. Many epitaphs and similar records reaching back far beyond Tudor times witness to their virtues, their kindliness, probity and unobtrusive prosperity. There is said to be a branch of them in Languedoc, but of that I know nothing. Blettsworthys went to America, to Virginia in particular, but they seem to have been swallowed up and lost there. Yet ours is a family of persistent characteristics not easily extinguished. Perhaps some American reader may know of the fate of this branch. Such chances occur. There is an alabaster figure of a Bishop Blettsworthy in Salisbury Cathedral that was brought thither from the aisle of old Sarum when that was demolished and Salisbury set up, and the marble face might have been a bust of my uncle, the rector of Harrow Hoeward, and the fine hands are like his hands. There ought to be Blettsworthys in America, and it perplexes me that I never hear of any. Something of their quality appears, I am told, in the Virginian landscape, which is wide and warm and kindly, they say, like our English downland, a little touched by the sun.
The Blettsworthys are a family of cultivators and culture. They have had little to do with merchandising, either in gross or detail, and they played no part in the direct development of what is called industrialism. They have preferred the church to the law, and classical scholarship, botany and archaeology to either, but they appear doing their duty by the land in Domesday Book, and Blettsworthy’s Bank is one of the last of the outstanding private banks in these days of amalgamation. It is still a great factor in West of England life. The Blettsworthys, rest assured, were drawn into banking by no craving for usurious gain, but simply to oblige the needs and requests of less trustworthy neighbours in Gloucestershire and Wilts. The Sussex branch is not quite so free from commercialism as the Wiltshire; it practised “free trade” during the French wars when free trade was strictly speaking illegal and a fine adventure, and in spite of the violent end of Sir Carew Blettsworthy and his nephew Ralph as the result of a misunderstanding with some Custom House officials in the streets of Rye that necessitated bloodshed, it acquired considerable wealth and local influence through these activities and has never altogether severed its connection with the importation of silks and brandy.
My father was a man of sterling worth but eccentric action. Many of the things he did demanded explanation before the soundness of his motives was clear, and some, because of their remoteness, his habitual negligence, or for other reasons, were never fully explained. The Blettsworthys are not always good at explanation. It is their habit to rely on their credit. Being a fifth son and with no prospects of a fortune nor any marketable abilities, my father was urged by his friends and relations to seek his fortune abroad, and left Wiltshire at an early age to look, as he said, for gold, looking, I admit, without any natural avidity and generally in quite unsuitable places. Gold, I understand, is extremely localised in its origins, and it is as a rule found gregariously in what are called “gold rushes,” but my father had an aversion from crowds and crowd behaviour and preferred to seek the rare and precious metal among agreeable surroundings and where the ungracious competition of unrefined people did not incommode him, subsisting meanwhile upon the modest remittances afforded him by his more prosperous connexions. He held that though this line of conduct might diminish his chances of discovering gold, it gave him a prospect of monopolising any lucky find that occurred to him He was more careless about marriage than is usual in the Blettsworthy strain, contracting it several times and sometimes rather informally—though indeed we are all rather unguarded in our assent to contracts—and my mother happened to be of mixed Portuguese and Syrian origin, with a touch of the indigenous blood of Madeira, where I was born.
My birth was entirely legitimate; whatever confusion there may be in my father’s matrimonial record came later and as a consequence of the extremely variable nature of marriage in tropical and subtropical climates.
My mother was, I understand, on the testimony of my father’s letters, a passionately self-forgetful woman, but she did not altogether eliminate herself in my composition. To her, I think, I must owe my preference for inclusive rather than concise statement, and a disposition, when other things are equal, to subordinate reality to a gracious and ample use of language. “She talks,” wrote my father to my uncle during her lifetime. “You never hear the last of anything.” Meaning that she felt things so finely and acutely that she resorted instinctively to the protection of a felt of words and that her mind could not rest satisfied so long as a statement was in any way incomplete. She fined; she retouched. How well I understand! I too understand how insupportable inexpression may become. Moreover I surely owe to her something even more alien to the Blettsworthy stock in my sense of internal moral conflict. I am divided against myself—to what extent this book must tell. I am not harmonious within; not at peace with myself as the true Blettsworthys are. I am at issue with my own Blettsworthy-ness. I add to my father’s tendency to a practical complexity, a liability to introspective enquiry. I insist I am a Blettsworthy, and you will remark that I insist. That is what no twenty-four carat Blettsworthy would do. I am consciously a Blettsworthy because I am not completely and surely a Blettsworthy. I have great disconnected portions of myself. Perhaps I am all the more loyal to my family traditions because I can be objectively loyal.
My mother died when I was five years old, and my few memories of her are hopelessly confused with a tornado that ravaged the island. Two clouds of apprehension mingled and burst in dreadful changes. I remember seeing trees and hours most shockingly inverted and a multitude of crimson petals soddened in a gutter, and that is associated confusedly with being told that my mother was dying and then dead. At the time I believe I was not so much grieved as astounded.
My father, after some futile correspondence with my maternal relations in Portugal and a rich uncle in Aleppo, succeeded in entrusting me to an inexperienced young priest who was coming from Madeira to England, and requested him to deposit me with an aunt in Cheltenham, Miss Constance Blettsworthy, who in that manner first became aware of my existence. My father had armed his emissary with documents that left no doubt of my identity. I have vague memories of mounting the side of the steamship at Funchal, but my recollections of the subsequent sea passage are happily effaced. I have a distincter picture of my aunt’s parlour in Cheltenham.
She was a dignified lady in what was either a blonde wig or hair skilfully arranged in such a fashion as to imitate one; she had a Companion similar to herself but larger, an unusually large person in fact, whose bust impressed my childish mind profoundly; and I remember they both sat up very high above me while I occupied a hassock before the fire, and that the conversation with the young priest was sufficiently momentous to leave a strong impression on my mind. They were clearly of opinion that he had been wrongly advised to bring me to Cheltenham and that he ought to take me on at once at least a further hour’s journey by rail to the home of my uncle, the rector of Harrow Hoeward.
My aunt said repeatedly that she was touched by my father’s confidence in her, but that the state of her health made her feel unequal to my entertainment. She and her Companion furnished the young priest with such facts about her state of health as were suitable for him to hear and even, I fancy, with additional particulars. They must have felt the emergency called for decisive treatment. In spite of the commiseration his profession demanded from him, he was manifestly anxious to waive these confidences in so far as they might be considered relevant to the business in hand. My father had said nothing to him about this brother at Harrow Hoeward, having concentrated his directions upon my Aunt Constance, the elder sister of his upbringing and a pillar of strength in his memory. The young priest did not feel justified, he declared, in varying his instructions. The trust was discharged, the young priest maintained, by my delivery into the hands of my aunt, and he lingered only for a settlement of certain incidental expenses upon the voyage for which my father had made no provision.
For my own part, I sat stoically upon my hassock and, with an affected concentration regarded the fire-place and the hob, which were of a type unknown in Madeira, listening the while. I was not very anxious to stay with my aunt, but I was quite eager to see no more of the young priest, so that I wished him well in his efforts to relinquish me and was pleased by his success.
He was a fat white young priest, with a round face and a high strangulated tenor voice more suitable for praying aloud than ordinary conversation. He had begun our acquaintance with the warmest, most winning, professions of affection, and I had shared his berth on board at his suggestion, but my inability to support the motion of the vessel with restraint, and a certain want of judgment in my disposition of the outcome, had gradually embittered a relationship that had promised to be ideal. By the time we reached Southampton we had conceived a mutual distaste which was mitigated only by the prospect of a separation that promised to be speedy and enduring.
In short, he would have no more to do with me.
I stayed with my aunt.
Cheltenham was not a very happy refuge for me. A small boy of five is sedulous in pursuit of occupation, tactless in his choice of entertainment, and destructive in his attempts to investigate and comprehend the more fragile objects of interest with which life teems for him. My aunt was addicted to collecting Chelsea figurines and other early English china; she loved the quaint stuff; and yet she failed to recognise a kindred passion in me when my eager young imagination would have introduced conflict and drama among her treasures. Nor did my attempts to play with and enliven the life of two large blue Persian cats who adorned the house please her maturer judgment. I did not understand that a cat, if one wishes to play with it, should not be too ardently pursued, and is rarely roused to responsive gaiety by even the best aimed blows. My doughty exploits in the garden, where I dealt with her Dahlias and Michaelmas daisies as though they were hostile champions and embattled hosts, aroused no spark of approval in her.
The two elderly domestics and the crumpled gardener, who ministered to the comfort and dignity of my aunt and her Companion, shared their employer’s opinion that the education of the young should be entirely repressive, so that I was able to go on existing at all only in a very unobtrusive manner. A young tutor was engaged, I seem to remember, to take me for walks as prolonged as possible and give me instructions as inaudible as possible, but I have no distinct recollection of him except that he was the first person I knew who wore detachable cuffs, and my impressions of Cheltenham are of a wilderness of endless spacious roads of pale grey houses under a pale blue sky, and of a Pump Room, bath chairs and an absence of bright colour and exhilarating incident in the extremest contrast with Madeira.
I note these months at Cheltenham—or perhaps they were only weeks, though in my memory at least they are months of a vague immensity—as a sort of interregnum in the Void before my real life began. Above and outside the sphere of my attention, my aunt and her Companion must have been making the most strenuous efforts to place me among other surroundings, for against the dim background to these Cheltenham reminiscences there come and go a number of still dimmer figures, Blettsworthys all, scrutinising me without either affection or animosity, but with a rapidly crystallising disposition to have nothing further to do with me. Their comments, I believe, fell under three main headings; firstly, that I was good for my aunt because I should take her out of herself—but clearly she did not want to be taken out of herself, and indeed who does?—or, secondly, that I had better be returned to my father, but that was impossible because he had left Madeira for an uncertain address in Rhodesia and our imperial postal system will not accept little boys addressed to the Poste Restante in remote colonies; or, thirdly, that the whole thing, meaning me, ought to be put before my uncle, the Rev. Rupert Blettsworthy, the rector of Harrow Hoeward. They were all in agreement that I promised to be rather small for a Blettsworthy.
My uncle was away in Russia at that time, with various Anglican bishops, discussing the possible reunion of the Anglican and Orthodox churches—it was long, long before the Great War and the coming of Bolshevism. Letters from my aunt pursued him, but were delayed and never overtook him. Then suddenly, just as I was growing resigned to a purely negative life in a household at Cheltenham under the direction of a tutor with detachable cuffs, my uncle appeared.
He resembled my father generally, but he was shorter and rosier and rounder and dressed like the rich and happy rector he was, instead of in loose and laundry worn flannels. There was much about him too that needed explanation, but the need was not so manifest. And his hair was silver-grey. He came right out of the background at once in a confident and pleasing manner. He put rimless glasses on his nose and regarded me with a half smile that I found extremely attractive.
“Well, young man,” he said in almost my father’s voice; “they don’t seem to know what to do with you. How would you like to come and live with me?”
“Please, sir,” I said as soon as I grasped the meaning of the question.
My aunt and her Companion became radiantly appreciative of me. They cast concealment aside. I had never suspected how well they thought of me. “He is so lively and intelligent,” they said; “he takes notice of everything. Properly looked after and properly fed he will be quite a nice little boy.”
And so my fate was settled.
§ 2. THE GOOD BROAD CHURCHMAN
WITH my establishment at Harrow Hoeward my life, I consider, really began. My memory, which has nothing but gleams and fragments of the preceding years, jumps into continuity from the very day of my arrival at that most homelike home. I could, I believe, draw maps to scale of the rectory, and certainly of the garden, and I can recall the peculiar damp smell of the pump in the yard beyond the out-house and the nine marigolds at equal distances against the grey stone wall. Year by year old Blackwell, the gardener, replaced them. I could write a chronicle of the cats, with sketches of their characters. And out beyond the paddock was a ditch and then the steep open down, rising against the sky. In the snowy winter or the hot summer I used to slide down that on a plank, for the dry grass in summer was more slippery than ice. In the front of the vicarage was a trim lawn and a hedge of yew, and to the left of us were Copers Cottages, and then at the notch in the road the Post Office and the General Store. The church and churchyard was our boundary the other way.
My uncle took me there a small indeterminate plastic creature, which might have become anything. But there inevitably I became the Blettsworthy I am to-day.
From the first moment of our acquaintance he was the most real and reassuring thing in life for me. It was like awakening on a bright morning merely to see him. Everything in my life before his appearance had been vague, minatory and yet unconvincing; I felt I was wrong and unsafe, that I was surrounded by shadowy and yet destructive powers and driven by impulses that could be as disastrous as they were uncontrollable. Daily life was the mask of a tornado. But now that effect of a daylight dream which might at any time become a nightmare, which was already creeping into my life in childhood in spite of a sort of stoical resistance I offered its invasion, was banished for many years from my mind. “Things have got a little wrong with you,” he said in effect in that Cheltenham parlour, “but, as a matter of fact and fundamentally, they are all right.”
And so long as he lived, either they were fundamentally all right or by some essential personal magic he made them seem so. Even now I cannot tell which of these things it was.
I do not remember my Aunt Dorcas as vividly as I do my uncle. Indeed, I do not remember her as fully as I do old Blackwell or the cook. This is odd, because she must have had a lot to do with me. But she was a busy self-effacing woman, who effected her ministrations so efficiently that they seemed to be not her acts but part of the routine of the universe. I believe she had always desired children of her own, and at first she had been a little distressed to realise that her sole family was to be one half alien nephew, a doubtful scrutinising being already past babyhood, eking out a limited English vocabulary with dubious scraps of Portuguese. Perhaps there remained a certain estrangement of spirit always. She never betrayed any want of affection; she did her duty by me completely, but it is clear as I look back upon these things that there was no motherhood, no sonship between us. The realities of her life were turned away from me altogether. All the more did my heart go out to my uncle, who seemed to diffuse kindliness as a hayfield in good weather diffuses scent, and who presided, in my childish imagination, not only over the house and the church and all the souls of Harrow Hoeward, but over the wide bare downland and the very sunshine. It is extraordinary how extensively he has effaced my father from my mind.
My idea of God is still all mixed up with him. In Madeira I had heard much of Dios by way of expletive and invocation, a subtropical passionate Dios, hot and thundery; but I never connected the two divinities until I reached years of comparison. God began afresh with me in England as the confederated shadow of my uncle, a dear English gentleman of a God, a super-Blettsworthy in control, a God of dew and bright frosty mornings, helpful and unresentful, whose peculiar festivals were Easter and Christmas and the Harvest Thanksgiving. He was the God of a world that was right way up, stern only to smile again, and even through the solemnity and restraint of Good Friday peeped out my uncle’s assurance that the young gentleman would come back safe and sound on Sunday. A serious time, of course, occasion for grave reflections, but meanwhile we had our hot cross buns.
There were crosses in my uncle’s church but no crucifix, no crown of thorns, no nails.
My uncle shook back his surplice from his shapely hands, leant over the pulpit and talked to us pleasantly of this pleasant supreme power who ruled the world, for twenty minutes at the most, since God must not be made tiresome to the weaker brethren. He needed explanation at times, this God of the Blettsworthys, his ways had to be justified to man, but not tediously. My uncle loved particularly to talk in his sermons of the rainbow and the ark and God’s certain covenants. He was awfully decent, was God, as his uncle displayed him, and he and my uncle made me want to be decent too. In a world of “All right” and “Right O” and “Right you are, Sir.” I lived in it and was safe in it all those years. Was it no more than a dream?
Evil was very far away and hell forgotten. “You don’t do that sort of thing,” said my uncle, and you didn’t. “Play up,” said my uncle, and you did. “Fair doos,” said my uncle; “you mustn’t be hard on people.” And patience with the poor performer; “How do you know the fellow isn’t trying?” Even the gipsies who drifted through that tranquil Downland and sometimes had to confer with my uncle in his secular might upon the bench, about minor issues of conduct, were deeply Anglicised gipsies; if they pinched a trifle now and again they were neither robbers nor violent. Dear England! Shall I never see you again as I saw you in those safe and happy days? Languedoc and Provence they say are gentle regions also, and Saxony; and here and there in Scandinavia you will find whole countrysides of kindliness, needing only the simplest explanations. I do not know about these places. It is to the English Downland that my heart returns.
My uncle shook back the sleeves of his surplice and leant smiling and persuasive over his pulpit, making everything clear and mild like English air, and I felt that if I were given a vision sufficiently penetrating I should see high above the blue ether another such kindly Father, instructing His fortunate world. Under Him in pews as it were and looking up to Him, were princes, potentates and powers all to be credited with the best intentions until there was positive proof to the contrary. Queen Victoria, simple and good and wise and rather the shape of a cottage loaf with a crown upon it, sat highest of all, not, I felt, so much a Queen and Empress as a sort of Vice Deity in the earth. On Sundays she occupied the big imperial pew right under God’s pulpit and no doubt took Him home to lunch. To dusky potentates who happened to know and respect her better than they knew God, she presented copies of the Authorised Version of the English Bible and referred them up magnanimously to her friend and ruler. No doubt she wrote Him earnest letters, with her particular wishes underlined, just as she wrote to Lord Beaconsfield and the German Emperor, upon what her fine instinct, a little instructed by Baron Stockmar, told her was best for the Realm, His World and her Family connexions. Beneath her was a system of hierarchic kindliness. Our local magnate was Sir Willoughby Denby, a great man for the irrigation of subtropical lands and the growing of cotton for the mills of Manchester and the needs of all mankind. A ruddy handsome man, inclined to be fat, and riding through the village on a stout cob. Farther towards Devizes spread the dominion and influence of Lord Penhartingdon, banker and archaeologist, and Blettsworthy on the mother’s side. Actually Blettsworthys held their ancestral lands from Downton to Shaftesbury and again towards Wincanton.
In this benevolent world which my uncle’s God and his own goodness had made upon the Wiltshire uplands, I grew from childhood to adolescence, and the dark strain of my mother’s blood, sorrowful and errant, flowed unsuspected in my veins and gave no sign. Perhaps for a Blettsworthy I was a trifle garrulous and quick with languages. Firs. . .
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