The Baronet’s Redemption

Vanity Fair (UK) (October 6, 1904)

(It is suspected that many of those who call themselves baronets to-day have no legal claim to that title, and an enquiry is being held into their genuineness.)

SIR JASPER MURGLESHAW sat at breakfast in the gloomy banqueting-hall at Murgleshaw Towers. He was ill at ease. A philanthropist at heart, Destiny had made him a bad baronet. It may be argued that the fact that he was a baronet did not compel him to be a bad baronet; but Sir Jasper looked more deeply into the question. Noblesse oblige was his motto. All his ancestors had been bad, and he felt that it was his duty to support a family tradition, however greatly against his personal wishes. The tendency of other baronets to be good, to respect the law of the land and the comfort of their fellow-men, seemed to him but another example of that fatal levelling movement which is so conspicuous a feature of our twentieth century existence. If, he reflected, the aristocracy did not act like aristocrats, how could they expect to maintain their prestige?

But he was not happy. He had grown to loathe the dull, monotonous round of crime. His first murder had had a certain piquancy, but custom had taken the savour from what, after all, was a nasty business, unless you used poison—and etiquette demanded that he should use the knife.

No wonder he was apt to be discontented at times.

Rousing himself with an effort from his brown study, he touched the bell. His beetle-browed retainer, Silas Gradgrue, appeared. His face wore the sinister smile which had recommended him to Sir Jasper; who had picked his photograph from among those of a hundred applicants for the post of steward at Murgleshaw Towers purely on the strength of that attribute.

“You rang, Sir?”

“I did, Silas. How is business?”

“Brisk, Sir Jasper. The village school feast takes place this afternoon. The arsenic which arrived from the Stores last night has already been placed in the tea-urns.”

“’Tis well”, said Sir Jasper, sighing heavily.

“Lor’, Sir Jasper”, chuckled the steward; “it’ll be as good as a play to see the little dears in conwulsions on the village green.”

“It will beat musical comedy”, agreed Sir Jasper. “Say on.”

“Then the cordite has been stowed in the vicar’s cellar, and the train will be fired at two pm precisely, when his reverence takes his after-luncheon snooze.”

“A vicar ought not to have a cellar”, said Sir Jasper, snatching at any excuse in order to still his conscience.

“It’s a coal-cellar”, said Silas Gradgrue.

Sir Jasper sighed heavily.

“What else?” he asked.

“The curate will be murdered at half-past six, wind and weather permitting, and his body flung into the village well.”

“Good”, said Sir Jasper, “that will do, Silas.”

Silas left the room.

It was with an aching heart that Sir Jasper turned to his correspondence. The majority of his missives were uninteresting business-letters. A line from his agent in London to say that the gang of burglars which Sir Jasper financed had successfully negotiated a house in Park Lane, and was about to try a second. The agent enclosed a cheque for the proceeds of the previous week. His kidnapping gang had also done well, as had his Anarchist League. His organ-grinders, on the other hand, had had a bad week.

The last letter of the batch was in a strange hand. He opened it. It was signed by the editor of Debrett.

“Sir”, it began—“We regret to have to inform you that an examination into the bona fides of your title of baronet has led to the discovery that it is spurious. We trust that your sense of what is right and proper will lead you at once to abandon it. Should you not think fit to adopt this course, we shall be compelled to take steps.—We are, dear Sir, yours &c, ——.”

With a loud cry of joy Mr J Murgleshaw fell fainting upon the cushions.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Mr J Murgleshaw is now one of the bulwarks of law and order of Balham—a churchwarden, a Sunday School teacher, in short, a man whom the suburb delights to honour. It is a never-failing source of regret to him that absence of mind kept him from cancelling the orders he had given on his last morning as a bad baronet, with the result that the pleasant and picturesque village of Little Murgleshaw-in-the-Mud has now a new vicar, a new curate, and an almost completely new set of inhabitants. But apart from this he has few worries, and it is highly improbable that he will commit so much as a single murder again. So much for Destiny and a name!