- chapter: BOOK I CHAPTER I ENTER LADY ESTHER
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ENTER LADY ESTHER
"AND now, my dear Esther," said the Duchess, throwing off her furs and sinking down into an easy chair; "tell me exactly what sort of a man he is, and whether you and Mamma like him. I'm simply dying to know; and so is Tammy, if he would only tell the truth; but being a man he pretends he isn't, and sends me to collect news for him, just as if we were lions and jackals instead of husbands and wives."
Lady Esther Wyvern paused for a moment. Unlike her elder sister, she was one of those rare women who always think before they speak. Then she replied slowly: "Yes, I like him; I decidedly like him, and I think Mamma does, too. But he isn't a bit our sort, you know."
The Duchess nodded. "Probably not: but he'll be none the worse for that! Though Mamma will think he is," she added as an afterthought. "Now proceed to describe him."
"Well, in the first place he isn't at all good-looking," Lady Esther began.
"Then he is our sort. None of the Wyverns ever are good-looking. I always think we are a remarkably Plain family."
"Oh, Eleanor! how can you say such things?" Lady Esther looked distinctly hurt.| | 2
"Because they are true; and you are such a stickler for speaking the truth that I should have thought you would have enjoyed them. If Wilfred had been good-looking I could never have treated him as one of the family. I should never have believed he was a real Wyvern. The Wyvern blood may be pure, my dear, but it doesn't prevent the Wyvern faces from being plain."
"And he is decidedly clever," continued Esther.
"Again a true Wyvern! I always have considered us clever. Papa was quite clever in his own solid mahogany, mid-Victorian fashion; you are clever in your intelligent and rather governessy way; and I am exceptionally clever for a duchess."
"But Wilfred's cleverness is of a different sort from ours."
"I don't see how that can be, since our clevernesses are all quite different from each other."
Lady Esther's brow was puckered with her effort to convey to her sister's mind a correct impression of their cousin. "But he is different again. He isn't like Papa, because he is extremely modern and up to date."
"Then he must be like me. I'm tremendously modern for a woman of my age and size. My one effort in life is to march with the times. I often march till I'm quite out of breath. I'm always urging Tammy to march by my side. It is the only hope for an aristocracy in these socialistic times."
Lady Esther's lip curled with scorn. "There is no hope for an aristocracy in these socialistic times."
"Oh yes there is! if we only march: a hope of a certain kind. I'm not fussy, and I don't mind being disestablished, if only I'm not disendowed. But I didn't motor over here to talk politics with you, my | | 3 dear Esther: I came to hear all about Wilfred, and if he is a big enough man for the place. So do go on about him."
"I'm trying to go on, but you keep interrupting me. Well, Wilfred is modern and up to date in quite a different way from yours. He is in earnest about it. It isn't just a pose with him as it is with you. You see he is really young and fresh and enthusiastic, and believes in things with all his heart." Esther invariably sacrificed tact to truth.
The Duchess laughed her merry laugh. Nothing disturbed her good temper. "Thank you, my dear child. What a truly sisterly remark! But I hope you don't mean that our beloved cousin is actually socialistic, and wishes to break up Papa's estate into small holdings, or something dreadful of that kind!"
"Oh dear no! He is very much in earnest, but it is quite the right sort of earnestness. He fully realizes the responsibilities of a great position, and is most anxious to render himself equal to them. He talks about being an earl just as you'd talk about being a clergyman, if you know what I mean."
"I see. That is certainly more like Papa than me. I never feel that being a duchess is at all like being a bishop! But if Wilfred is that sort of a person, I don't wonder that Mamma has taken to him. She always loves earnestness, and a sense of responsibility, and things like that."
The subject of the two sisters' conversation was their distant kinsman, Wilfred Wyvern, who had succeeded, some six months previously, to their father's title and estates. The late Earl of Westerham left no son; and his only brother, Colonel Wyvern—heir presumptive to the peerage and a widower with one son—died a year or two before the Earl, his son having | | 4 predeceased him by a few months. The next in succession was a distant cousin—so distant that the head of the family had never seen him; for the late Lord Westerham was the last man to be on friendly terms with a collateral who was hoping to step into his august shoes as soon as he should vacate them. It was bitter disappointment to him that he had no son: and real grief when his brother's son was killed in a hunting accident; and at the bottom of his heart he blamed his next heir for both these disappointments, and hated him accordingly. The late Earl was one of those fortunate men—men specially fitted to shine in political life—who can successfully shut their eyes to anything they do not wish to see. He did not wish to see Wilfred Wyvern: it seriously annoyed him that a branch of the family-tree, growing so far apart from the parent stem that its leaves had trailed in middle-class dust, should, owing to an unfortunate accident in the hunting-field, aspire to become the parent-stem itself: therefore for him that trailing branch did not exist.
The fourth Earl of Westerham had other valuable gifts in addition to his faculty for eye-closing; and one of the most valuable was absolute infallibility. He had never been known—in all his seventy-eight years—to own himself in the wrong, or even in error. That in itself was a great source of strength. People who are never in the wrong may be irritating to others, but they are a wonderful support to themselves.
There is an expression much used (whatever it may mean) that certain people are "Nature's gentlemen." In a similar way Lord Westerham was one of "Nature's clergymen." He was not an actual clergy man, any more than Nature's gentlemen are actual gentlemen: but he possessed all the typical and ideal | | 5 clerical attributes. He really was a good man according to his lights: and if his lights were but few, and those few carefully shaded by conventions and prejudices, it was not perhaps altogether his fault. Lord Westerham was by profession a peer, but by preference a lay-reader. He was never so happy as when presiding at public functions, which, at his touch, were speedily transformed into religious services. His speeches at prize-givings were in themselves a theological training: and bazaars were, so to speak, his oysters, which he opened with delight. He dropped into preaching, as Silas Wegg dropped into poetry; and all his conversations finally ripened into sermons, as surely as blossom ripens into fruit. True, an untimely frost might nip them in the bud, as blossoms are sometimes nipped: but the living germ of a sermon lay concealed in his shortest utterances: and—in English society as at present constituted—a wealthy peer does not meet with more than his share of untimely conversational frosts.
The fourth Lord Westerham had followed his clerical inclinations even in the matter of his marriage; and had taken to wife Cecilia, eldest daughter of the Right Reverend the Honourable Alured Henderson, Lord Bishop of Merchester, third son of the fifth Viscount Edmonton. As Countess of Westerham, Cecilia developed into a most perfect and finished product of the Victorian Age. She was a grande dame of the old school: but a grande dame translated into Evangelical English. The stateliness of the ancien régime was hers, without its frivolity: she possessed its grandeur without its gaiety.
With one notable exception, Lady Westerham performed the part of a good wife and a great lady to perfection; but her one lack was a reprehensible one: | | 6 she failed to provide an heir to her lord's title and estates. But his lordship was far too excellent a man and too devoted a husband ever to reproach—even in thought—his wife on this score: he divided the blame of this regrettable omission equally between Providence and the heir-presumptive; and his attitude was one of commendable leniency towards the former, and of distinct annoyance towards the latter.
The only children of this union were two daughters, who, unfortunately, inherited their father's plainness; as the son, who never came, would probably have inherited his mother's beauty.
Eleanor, the elder, however, so successfully atoned for her want of beauty by her gaiety and common sense, that she captured (and, what is more wonderful, retained) the affections of the Marquis of Tamford; and so became, when in due time her father-in-law was gathered to his ducal fathers, Duchess of Mershire. Though never a handsome woman, she was extremely pleasant-looking, and understood the art of dressing to perfection; an art of which her mother—though a beauty in her time—had never mastered the rudiments. Though the fairies had denied to Lady Eleanor Wyvern the gift of beauty, they had endowed her plentifully with two almost as excellent qualities, namely, personality and charm: and that was the reason why she became Marchioness of Tamford and consequently Duchess of Mershire.
But the fairies who made up to Lady Eleanor for her want of beauty by two almost as excellent gifts, took no notice at all of her younger sister's christening. Lady Esther was a plain likeness of Eleanor, with none of Eleanor's redeeming points. In her case, Eleanor's merry blue eyes became a faded grey; Eleanor's dark hair, a dull mouse-colour; Eleanor's | | 7 bright complexion, a pasty white. In place of Eleanor's light heart, Esther had an overburdened conscience; and in place of Eleanor's ready wit, a slow and accurate tongue. Consequently while the elder sister secured the strawberry-leaves, the younger was left to wear the willow: and up to the time of her father's death—when she herself was forty years of age—Lady Esther Wyvern had never had a lover.
But if Eleanor had still the more prepossessing face, Esther surpassed her sister with regard to figure. In accordance with an almost universal rule, the younger sister was considerably taller than the elder; and while the Duchess had acquired a certain matronliness of form, Esther still retained her girlish slenderness. Also, Eleanor's hair being dark, it was beginning to be shot with silver; while Esther's mouse-coloured locks—as is usual with hair of that hue—could not as yet boast a single grey hair. Therefore, although there was only five years' difference in the sisters' ages, there appeared to be more, since the Duchess looked her forty-five years, while Lady Esther looked decidedly less than her forty.
But the great difference between the late Lord Westerham's two daughters lay not in their outward appearance, but in character. While the elder was an ordinary, cheerful, good-tempered woman of the world, the younger was the raw material out of which saints are manufactured. Esther Wyvern hid behind her somewhat uninteresting face a really beautiful nature. In fact her spirit was of such inherent fineness that her virtues hardly seemed virtues at all, but just natural attributes. It appeared—to other people as well as to herself—impossible for her to behave otherwise than as an angel. And this, of course, was rather hard on her, as it is on all persons who have the credit | | 8 of unusual amiability: actions which in others are lauded to the skies, in them are taken as mere matters of course. How delighted we all are if a usually disagreeable person happens to be pleasant to us; it is to us as snow in summer: while the amiability of the habitually urbane is no more to us than daisies in springtime. In fact, we trample upon both equally.
Lady Esther possessed one of those abnormally sensitive and exasperating consciences which ought by rights to be supplied with blinkers: instead of which her strict early training had fitted it with magnifying-glasses. Hence the tragedy of her life. Had she, in the days of her secluded youth, now and again evaded the parental eye (as Eleanor did), she might have had the excitement and delight (as Eleanor had) of ineligible and surreptitious lovers. But she was always scrupulously filial both in the spirit and in the letter, and declined to indulge in any pastime which had not, so to speak, been licensed by her father. In fact she obeyed her parents as implicitly as Eleanor (when Eleanor had the chance) disobeyed them. Yet Eleanor had plenty of delightful and unsuitable love-affairs when she was a girl, and secured a devoted and ducal husband when she was a woman; while Esther travelled her forty years in this mundane wilderness without having any love-affair at all, and was regarded by her parents with that half-tender, half-contemptuous affection, which the children of men generally mete out to their unwooed daughters.
Immediately after the late Lord Westerham's death, his widow and unmarried daughter went to the South of France for the winter; and the new peer was established at Wyvern's End before they returned to England in the early spring to take up their permanent abode at the Dower House. Naturally, they had seen | | 9 a good deal of him during the first few days after their return; and now the Duchess of Mershire—who had returned with them from Mentone—had just motored over to learn the result of their investigations.
"Now go on, Esther," she urged; "tell me more about Wilfred. I shall never dare to go back to Tammy unless I can tell him every possible detail about the new Westerham. He is positively athirst with curiosity. Men really are inquisitive creatures, and yet they pretend that we are."
"But aren't we?"
"Of course we are; but nothing like as inquisitive as men. And we never pretend not to be, which is where they are so trying." The Duchess's language often was involved, though her meaning was generally clear.
"I wonder you married a man, considering what a poor opinion you have of them," remarked her sister, with gentle irony.
"But, my dear, what else was there for me to marry? And you know it would have been against my principles to remain single. I always think singleness is extremely bad for women, it makes them either fussy or conscientious."
But Esther had all the admiration of the spinster for the opposite sex. "I never think you appreciate Tammy, Eleanor; he really is a most unselfish husband."
"My dear girl, an unselfish husband is one who invariably wants his own way, but always expects his wife to pretend that it is hers. Tammy has been most awfully kind all to-day saying he knows how much I must want to see you and Mamma, and arranging for me to motor over and do so: and yet all the time what he really means is that he wants to know all | | 10 about Wilfred, and expects me to come and find it out for him. I know my Tammy."
"But after all you must remember who he is, Eleanor; he has been accustomed always to have his own way."
"Of course, I remember he is a duke. If I hadn't, I shouldn't have married him—or, at any rate, Papa and Mamma wouldn't have served him up for me so tastily, and rammed him down my throat. But, all the same, I'm very fond of Tammy: make no mistake about that. And when I'm not, it isn't his dukiness that irritates me—it is his ordinary manliness. And he can't help that, poor dear! He was born a man, and he has got to go through with it."
"I wish you wouldn't say things like that about Papa and Mamma," remonstrated Esther; "I don't think it is dutiful."
"Well, at any rate, it's true. Of course, Papa and Mamma were always very religious people: but they were always very worldly as well."
"Oh, Eleanor, don't!" Esther looked scandalized.
"Why not? I don't think any the worse of them for being worldly. In fact, all the better, as I'm the one who has profited by their worldliness. I think as people get older they ought to get a little more worldly, just as they ought to get a little stouter. Unworldliness and thinness are all very well on what is called the sunny side of thirty, though why it should be considered sunnier than the other side I've never been able to find out; but in middle age one has to put on the world and the flesh to a certain extent. It is more becoming."
Esther shook her head. To her devoted spirit such talk was sacrilege.
"Now if Mamma hadn't been rather worldly," the | | 11 Duchess continued, "and put her foot down once and for all, I should have probably married that nice-looking curate I was so much in love with when I was twenty: don't you remember him? I forget his name, but he had bulging eyes and leanings towards spiritualism. He used to say he got messages from either Cardinal Wolsey or John Wesley—I forget which, but I know it was some great religious celebrity whose name began with a W—and I used to pretend to myself that I believed it, but of course I never really did."
"Didn't you? I think I should have liked to believe it."
"Oh, my dear Esther, what nonsense!"
Lady Esther was so accustomed to have her thoughts and words condemned as nonsense by her home circle, that she never dreamed of rebelling; she merely tried to explain. "I mean that it would be helpful to me to believe that those who have gone before are still in communication with us, and interesting themselves in our affairs."
"Well, I can tell you I didn't want any Wolseys or Wesleys interesting themselves in my affairs: it was bad enough to have Papa and Mamma doing so, and spoiling all my fun! Though, of course, I am glad now that they did, or else I might be married to my little curate, and buried with him in some awful country parish."
"He might have been a bishop by now if you'd have married him," suggested Esther.
"Not he! Too cranky and spiritualistic for a bishop. He wouldn't have been at all suitable to rule over a see, though he was quite perfect for kissing over a stile."
"Oh, Eleanor! how can you say such things?"| | 12
"Because I think them, and I can't stand humbug. I enjoyed making love to my little curate, and I'm not ashamed to own it, even though I'm a duchess and a mother and all the other respectable things. And I enjoyed nothing more in the whole affair than thinking my heart was broken when Mamma found it out, and had him carted off to some other parish. I've never enjoyed anything more than that broken heart: though, of course, Mamma didn't know that I enjoyed it, but talked to me all the time as if I'd got a toothache or a bilious attack. I think it is a great mistake that I haven't any daughters, because I should have understood them so much better than Mamma understood us."
"I don't know about that. You'd have understood them if they had been like you; but if they'd been like me, you wouldn't have understood them any better than Mamma did."
"But why should they have been like you?" the Duchess rattled on. "Family characteristics don't descend like the knight's move in chess. No: where the trouble would have come in, if I'd had any daughters, is that they might have been like Tammy: and though I adore him as a husband, I couldn't have stood him as a daughter. He'd have driven me wild! Tammy is delightful as a duke, but would be detestable as a débutante."
Lady Esther had not a keen sense of humour: but the idea of her cheery and worldly-wise brother-in-law as a débutante made her smile. "You understand the boys all right," she remarked by way of consolation, "so why not be content with them?"
"I am content with them: I think Tamford is a duck, and Archie a perfect darling. And, of course, I understand them, because I always understand men."| | 13
"I'm not sure about that. I don't think you always understood Papa."
"Yes, I did. At least I knew when I didn't understand him, which comes to the same thing. The women who really misunderstand men are those who think they do understand them when they don't. Now, with regard to Tammy: the parts of his character that I understand I mark with pink, like the British possessions on a map of the world, don't you know? And those are the only parts I bother about. The rest isn't in my territory, and I don't meddle with it."
Esther sighed. "If I had a husband, I think I should like the whole of his character to be marked with pink."
"Then it would be a faked-up business: that's all I can say: like those religious maps that have different colours for different religions. I remember Papa had one once to show the spread of Romanism, where the perverted countries were all marked scarlet, after the Scarlet Woman, and it looked for all the world as if the red-ink bottle had been upset over it!"
There was a moment's pause, and then Esther said rather shyly: "I remember the name of that curate who was in love with you: it was Whiteford." It was characteristic of the two sisters that, while it was Eleanor whom the curate had loved, it was Esther who remembered his name.
"Oh, Esther, how clever of you! And you were still in the schoolroom at the time. He used to lend me books all about spirits and things—I do remember that—though I never read them at all carefully. Have you ever noticed that people with fancy religions always lend you books about them, but people with ordinary religions never do? I hardly ever call upon | | 14 people who belong to a fancy religion without their lending me whole circulating libraries of books about it: but it never occurred to me to lend any of my callers the Thirty-nine Articles to take home with them."
Lady Esther looked thoughtful. "I suppose the real reason is that people with what you call fancy religions think things out for themselves; and therefore are much more vitally interested in the subject than the people who take everything for granted and don't trouble their heads about it."
"In the same way, people who are on the wrong side are always so much more enthusiastic than people who are on the right one. Little Whiteford was much keener on his cranks than he was on his dogmas; but he was a nice little creature all the same."
"And he had very nice eyes, Eleanor," Esther pleaded; "they weren't at all bulging."
"Yes, they were; they showed in his profile; and all eyes that show in a profile must bulge. But his was quite a nice sort of bulge, I admit."
"I remember his sermons very well: I used to like them," continued Esther dreamily; "they were out of the common, and made me think."
"I don't remember his sermons at all: I only remember his kisses, and they weren't at all out of the common."
Esther looked shocked: such matters were still as sacred to her as they were when she was a girl. "Oh, Eleanor, how can you! I don't think kisses are things to talk about."
The Duchess laughed merrily. "My dear child, there is no harm in talking about kisses that are five-and-twenty years old. It is only current kisses that ought not to be mentioned. If anybody kissed me | | 15 now I shouldn't talk about it: but nobody ever does; and my candid opinion is that nobody ever wants to!" And she laughed again. "By the way, I wish somebody would want to: it would make Tammy sit up!"
"You asked me who Wilfred is like," said Esther; "and I couldn't think of anybody at the time. But now it has struck me that he is a little like Mr. Whiteford used to be."
"Do you mean that he has bulging eyes, or that he kisses over stiles? This is really interesting!"
Esther blushed to the roots of her faded hair. "Oh no! he isn't like him in that sort of way. I only mean he says things out of the common that make you think: just as Mr. Whiteford used to."
"Then I dare say it will go on to the stile business in time: if people are alike in one thing, they generally are in another; and if it does, mind that you are on the other side of the stile, Esther. It would be a capital arrangement for both of you."
Esther's pink blush became scarlet. "Eleanor, how dare you! Why, he is twelve years younger than I am."
"And little Whiteford was twelve years older than I was, but it didn't prevent our kissing at stiles. It was Mamma who prevented it: and I'm sure she wouldn't prevent you from kissing Wilfred."
"Eleanor, I hate to hear you say such things! I hate to have such things said to me! They are positively vulgar!"
"English is vulgar, if you come to that; the vulgar tongue; but that doesn't prevent me from talking it, nor you from understanding it. It may be vulgar of me; but I cannot help feeling that it would be the best thing possible for Wilfred to marry you. You know what a queer set he has been brought up in: all | | 16 among actresses and authoresses and queer, fascinating people of that kind; and think how dreadful it would be if he married one of them, and stuck her up at Wyvern's End in Mamma's place! I grant you that actresses and authoresses and clever people like that are much more attractive and entertaining than we are, and it would be far greater fun to marry one of them. But Wilfred's duty to himself and to his family and to the estate is to marry one of us, however dull it may be: and here are you ready to hand, and a Wyvern into the bargain!"
Poor Esther's blush grew so violent that it brought the tears to her eyes. "Oh, Eleanor, please don't!" she pleaded. "Wilfred isn't a bit your worldly-wise sort. Love and everything connected with it would be as sacred to him as it is to me."
"Another reason for marrying him: then you could talk about such things together on winter evenings, with your heads in the clouds and your feet on the fender. You'd enjoy it awfully; and you'd neither of you have an idea how funny you both were! Oh, here is Mamma!" and the Duchess rose from her seat, as a tall, white-haired, distinguished-looking woman entered the room and proceeded to embrace her elder daughter.
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