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.”