Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

Her Ladyship's Conscience, an electronic edition

by Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler [Fowler, Ellen Thorneycroft, 1860-1929]

date: 1913
source publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
collection: Genre Fiction

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SOME three years before the conversation recorded in the last chapter, a young man was sitting in his odgings [sic] in London. The room was comfortably but plainly furnished: there were one or two good prints upon the walls, which were, however, mainly covered with books—poetry, novels, histories, essays, books of reference, and a fair number of volumes dealing with the most recent developments of speculative thought in religion and philosophy. For books were the tools of Wilfred Wyvern, who earned a modest but sufficient income as a journalist. He was tall and broad, with square shoulders and a fine physique. His hair was dark, his eyes were grey, and his complexion was inclined to be sallow. His face was undoubtedly plain, with a square nose, deep-set eyes, and rather a severe expression: but this plainness was redeemed from actual ugliness by a beautiful mouth, and his smile—when his face lighted up—was likewise beautiful. He was clean-shaven, according to the fashion of his day: and there was a curl in his thick hair which was distinctly attractive, as being a contrast—in its suggestion of frivolity—to the sternness of his face.

It was late at night, and he had just finished an article for The Infallible—a weekly journal whose editor, in his own estimation at least, always held the right views on every topic, political, religious or social, and who was never known to acknowledge that | | 18 he had made, or indeed could make, a mistake. To this journal Wyvern contributed with fair regularity an article on some literary or social topic: but whatever his opinion as to the general infallibility of The Infallible, he had no illusion as to his own.Yet he was young enough to believe in himself: he had his views on current politics: he was abreast of the times: was well read in modern books, and knew what men were thinking and saying. He was thoroughly in earnest, and enthusiastic in the propagation of his own ideas. He had not yet reached the stage of understanding that new books do not necessarily contain new ideas, or that new religions are merely old fallacies with new faces; but he had thrown off the mantle of dogma which clogged the feet and impeded the progress of the generation preceding him, and had adopted the more fashionable and diaphanous mental vestment which is described as "an open mind." He was still young enough to think that he himself was right; but he was also modern enough not to think that everybody else was wrong. With his whole heart he believed the Truth as it had been revealed to him, and was ready to die for it, should such an unlooked-for contingency ever arise; but he was not prepared to consign to prison or to perdition those of his fellow-thinkers to whom another facet of the divinely cut Jewel had been shown. He knew that the one perfect chrysolite of Truth has many sides and many facets: he also knew that the finite mind can only see one of these at a time: therefore he did not doubt the correctness of his own spiritual eyesight; but he allowed that other spiritual eyesights, which saw something quite different from what he saw, might nevertheless be as correct in their perception as was he. He did not attempt, however, to reconcile these seeming discrep- | | 19 ancies: he knew that such a task was far beyond his finite powers; but he was content to leave that to the Great Reconciler, and to possess his own soul in patience meanwhile. His spirit was that of the Inquirer, rather than that of the Inquisitor.

Wyvern filled a last pipe before turning in, and picked up the evening paper, which as yet he had been too busy to read. He glanced over the columns of the paper in a perfunctory way, when his attention was fixed by seeing his own name. The paragraph was headed Fatal Accident in the Hunting Field. It appeared that Algernon Wyvern, the only son of Colonel the Hon. William Wyvern, had been thrown from his horse, and had died from the injuries sustained.

Wyvern whistled softly to himself. "By Jove!" he muttered, "that makes a difference!" It did.

Wilfred Wyvern was a collateral of the old family whose head was the Earl of Westerham. His father, a very far-off cousin of the present holder of the title, had been a major in the Indian Army, and was killed in a frontier skirmish soon after Wilfred's birth. Major Wyvern was by no means a rich man, and a considerable portion of his income died with him. As he had married a portionless girl for her beauty, his widow was left with but slender means. She had adored her husband, and her heart was broken by his death. She returned to England and devoted herself to the upbringing of her boy; but she never recovered from the blow, and it was in a cheerless home and amid melancholy surroundings that Wilfred passed his early days.

Mrs. Wyvern was too proud to seek assistance from the head of her husband's house; and as Lord Westerham—though sonless—was amply provided with a | | 20 brother and a nephew, it did not seem likely that Wilfred would even come within speaking distance of the title. So there was not any communication—nor any particular reason for such communication—between Major Wyvern's family and his far-off, titled cousins.

Mrs. Wyvern possessed distinct literary gifts. In her girlhood she had frequently sought the bubble reputation in the Poets' Corner of the local paper; after her marriage she contributed short stories—rich with local colour—both to English and Indian magazines: and in her widowhood she took to writing novels about Anglo-Indian society, which deserved—and earned—a considerable reputation. In this way she found some distraction from sad memories, and incidentally obtained a welcome addition to her small income.

Fortunately there was an excellent preparatory school in the seaside town where she settled on returning to England. Wilfred proved to be not only a healthy child, but also one gifted with brains. His curiosity was remarkable even in a child, and his questions severely taxed his mother's knowledge and powers of invention. He wanted to know the reason of everything—how this thing grew, how that machine worked, how another article was made. His quickness of perception and understanding were very great. Like other boys of an inquiring turn of mind he was sometimes a nuisance, the initials "R.S.V.P." being writ large all over him: nevertheless he acquired, while still young, a considerable amount of miscellaneous knowledge; and, better still, the habit of probing things, and not of meekly accepting their existence.

At school he showed considerable power of application, and made rapid progress. But he was by no | | 21 means a little plaster-saint in a niche. He got into a reasonable number of scrapes—but they were only scrapes. He was at times as mischievous as a monkey, but he had a healthy mind and escaped the contamination of serious evil. He was as fond of games as he was of lessons; and without attaining great excellence, was reasonably proficient at cricket and football.

In due time his mother was gratified by his obtaining a scholarship at a public school—not in the first rank, it is true, still a school of repute. Without this monetary assistance such a school would have been an impossibility for the widow's son. As it was, with that self-denial which is part of a woman's nature and which is the joy of a mother's heart, she was able, by the help of the scholarship, to provide the needful money. What it cost her to part from her only child, no one knew. But she steeled herself for the effort, and dulled her pain by devoting more time and energy to writing in order to enable her to give her boy extra pocket-money, and to hoard up a sum for the time when every penny would be wanted to send him to the University. For on a University career she had set her heart. Wilfred would have liked to follow in his father's footsteps by obtaining a commission in the Army. But apart from the fact that her husband's death on the battle-field made Mrs. Wyvern's heart turn cold at the idea of a like fate befalling her son, she literally could not afford to let him go into the Army.

Wilfred passed through his school career with credit. He worked his way into the Sixth and became a prefect at an unusually early age. But fortunately he didn't develop into a prig. He managed to scrape into the Eleven in his last year, and won the Mile at the Sports. He was not a bad speaker at the | | 22 Debating Society. He was at his best as editor of the magazine. One of the masters had discovered that the boy had a decided literary gift—inherited, doubt-less, from his mother—and had taken him in hand. The said master was an admirable writer himself, and a merciless critic. Under his careful guidance Wilfred became a really good writer: his verses were decidedly above the average, and in his prose he showed that he had a distinct feeling for style. While he was editor the magazine had an excellence that is rare in school journals.

In due course Wilfred won a scholarship at Oxford: but his natural delight in his success was turned into bitterness by the death of his mother. Mrs. Wyvern lived long enough to know that her desire that her son should go to the University would be fulfilled, but was not fated to share the triumphs that she anticipated for him there. Her death was a terrible blow to Wilfred: there had been no warning illness, no perceptible failure in her powers; but her papers revealed the fact that she herself knew well that she had serious heart weakness, and might die at any moment. She had carefully concealed the fact from her son, but had made careful preparation for the event. The little store of money she had accumulated, together with the scholarship he had won, was sufficient for his University career.

It was a sad beginning for what should be one of the happiest times in a man's life. To be for the first time more or less his own master; to live in his own rooms; to meet not only his old school-fellows but his peers from other schools; to wander beneath the trees where Addison loved to roam; to "walk the studious cloisters pale"; to listen to the "pealing organ and the full-voiced quire," and "to have all heaven brought | | 23 before his eyes"—in short, to drink in all the magic and the beauty of that sweet city with her dreaming spires—what can a young man want better than this?

And to Wilfred this life began under the shadow of a great sorrow. He mourned deeply for his mother; but he did not allow his grief to interfere with his work, and gradually he recovered from the blow. He remembered that his mother had looked forward with pride to the success she anticipated for him at the University, and he determined that he would do his best to fulfil all that she expected of him, although it was a bitter thought that she would not share in his triumphs. Life would never be the same to him again; he would miss her smile and her encouragement. But her influence remained: her memory was not only an inspiration, but a safeguard in the times of trial and temptation that await a young man.

The four years at Oxford passed all too quickly. Lectures, debates at the Union, delightful evenings at the Musical Club, hard pulls to Iffley and Sandford Lock filled up the days. Wyvern read sufficiently hard to gain a creditable First in Classical Moderations, followed by a First in History in the Final Schools. But there his success ceased. He had engaged in too many pursuits; his reading had been wide but too desultory, so that no Fellowship crowned his Oxford career. He had, therefore, to give up any idea of the Bar. But he had won a decided reputation by contributions to the Oxford Magazine; so that when the termination of his scholarship and the rapid shrinking of the small store left to him by his mother made the earning of his daily bread a matter of practical and pressing importance, it seemed clear that he must go in for a literary career. And as the daily | | 24 bread had to be earned, it was even more clear that the literary career must begin by journalism. Wyvern might indeed have sought a mastership in a school; but somehow this idea was distasteful to him. So he packed up his books and his papers, took a modest lodging in London, and sought an engagement on the staff of some paper.

This was by no means easy to obtain. In these days few are the vacant posts and many are the applicants. Wyvern had before him some months of hard work and bitter disappointment. To keep body and soul together was no easy task. Sometimes an article was accepted—even then payment did not invariably follow.

One night, however, an acquaintance he had made, who had obtained some celebrity as a writer and was in touch with the newspaper world, happened to look in at his rooms. Wyvern was out, but his friend, Smedley by name, thinking he might soon return, sat down, lit his pipe, and picked up some manuscript papers that were littering the floor. Perhaps he ought not to have read them, but he did—with satisfactory results so far as Wyvern was concerned. When the latter returned some half-hour later, he was met with, "I say, Wyvern, who wrote this stuff? "

"If you must know," replied Wyvern, "I did. But it may as well go into the waste-paper basket."

"Confound the waste-paper basket! Don't you know that this is really good copy?"

"I thought so, certainly," replied Wyvern modestly; "but those confounded editors don't seem to agree with me."

"You may be pretty sure that no editor who is worth his salt has seen this stuff!" replied Smedley. "It's never got past some understrapper or other. Just let | | 25 me have some of this, and I'll see what can be done with it."

"You don't mean to say that you think you can get it printed?" cried Wyvern.

"Not only that, but the man I have in view will be glad to have it. Yes, and, like Oliver Twist, he'll be asking for more."

"No such luck!" replied Wyvern, with a shrug and a sigh. Fate had been hard on him lately, and he was getting hopeless.

However, Smedley seized on the papers, and with a good-natured nod went off with them.

He was as good as his word. Maxwell, the editor of The West End Gazette, was a friend of his: moreover, he was not a man who was content with work in a groove. He had a keen eye for good writing, and was ever on the look-out for new ideas and new men. At Smedley's instigation he read one of Wyvern's articles, and was much struck by it. Wyvern had somehow hit upon a new vein. His articles had a touch of originality and a certain quaintness and distinction of style which pleased the editor. He not only agreed to publish a series of articles by Wilfred, but also asked the latter to call upon him. The result was that Wyvern was placed upon the regular staff of The West End Gazette. At first he, of course, occupied a very subordinate position; but he had a salary, small indeed, but regular. As time went on his work pleased the chief, and Wyvern was given more responsible work with better pay. He supplemented this, as his name became known in journalistic circles, by writing for the monthly and weekly magazines, and soon he became a more or less regular contributor to The Infallible. He was now in a fairly good position, and could live comfortably.

| | 26

During this time he had no communication with his relations. The Earl of Westerham had been informed of the death of Mrs. Wyvern, but had taken no notice thereof.

Wyvern had not taken much interest in the family pedigree. He knew that Lord Westerham had two daughters, and that his lordship's brother, Colonel Wyvern, had one son: and he was vaguely aware that his own father had been the next male representative of the family, and that therefore he himself was in the line of succession. But, curiously enough, the idea of inheritance had never occurred to him.

And perhaps this was not so curious after all, when one considers the atmosphere in which he lived and moved and had his being. We all of us measure things and people according to the standard of the world we live in, and of the dimension in which we exist; and Wilfred lived in a world where the claims of high rank and of great wealth were practically non-existent, but where the possession of intellectual powers and artistic gifts was rated at its highest value. The question, "Where did he come from?" was never asked in Wilfred's circle: "What has he done? " was the only inquiry that needed any answer. The sacred writings of his particular clique were not to be found between the scarlet boards of Burke's Peerage, but in the more catholic and eclectic pages of Who's Who. Like the rest of the world he bowed his knee to an aristocracy; but it was an aristocracy of brains and not of blood. And even the foundations of his own pride and self-respect rested not upon the fact that he was a possible earl, but upon the belief that he was a probable editor.

But when he read of the death of his cousin Algernon, the facts of the case were brought home to him. | | 27 It was unlikely that Colonel Wyvern would ever have another son: so that in the course of nature, unless anything happened to Wilfred, he was bound sooner or later to succeed to the title. Whether the estates followed the title he did not know. But it certainly made a difference: yes, it certainly made a difference.

It is but fair to Wilfred to state that any joy that he might have felt in seeing so prosperous a future opening out before him, was completely swallowed up in regret for the untimely death of the young cousin whom he had never seen. Like most of us, Wilfred had his faults; but, unlike many of us, there was nothing small or petty in his nature. Both physically and mentally, he was built on big lines: and the fact that he himself would eventually profit by Algernon Wyvern's fatal accident, in no way blinded his eyes to the tragedy of that accident, nor lessened his sincere distress and sorrow over it. But all the same he could not disguise from himself that it certainly made a difference. And the difference did not stop there.

Time passed on, and in less than a year Wilfred saw in the newspapers the death of Colonel Wyvern, the broken-hearted father having survived his son only a few months.

That made more difference still, as Wilfred was now heir-presumptive to the peerage.

But it did not make any difference in his relations with his noble relative; for by that time Lord Westerham's passive indifference to his many-times-removed cousin had changed into active dislike. Like Henry the Fourth, he found it difficult to forgive the man who was waiting to step into his shoes—which shoes, in his case, happened to take the form of a coronet instead of a crown, the aspirant being a complete stranger and | | 28 not his own son. But the principle was the same. Wilfred had, it is true, no chance of trying on the impending coronet; nor was he the sort to avail himself of such a chance had it been offered to him; but Lord Westerham felt as if he had found the ambitious youth pranking in it before the looking-glass, and detested him accordingly.

Time continued to pass on: and two years after Colonel Wyvern's death, the Earl himself was gathered to his august fathers, and Wilfred was called upon to reign in his stead.

And that made a very great difference indeed.

chapter 13 >>