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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As Lord Westerham and his cousin passed through the gardens of the Dower House into Wyvern Park, and then ascended the sloping ground which led to one of the finest views in Kent, there was silence for a time between them—the restful silence which can only exist between persons who perfectly understand and are thoroughly at home with each other. It was perhaps strange that a young man, full of joy and hope and the pride of life, should so completely understand and enter into the feelings of a middle-aged and disappointed woman; but then Wilfred had a touch of literary genius, and had spent most of his life in that literary wonderland where a man can look at happiness through another man's eyes, and can intermeddle with the bitterness of a woman's heart—that magic country the inhabitants whereof live in glass houses, and learn, by means of the clue of imagination, to walk in the narrow way of truth.

And then between the two there was the tie of kinship—that mysterious bond which nothing can break, and which is sometimes so extremely helpful in unravelling the secrets of another's soul.

Suddenly Westerham broke the silence: "I am so glad to have met the Duchess. What an amusing woman she is!"

Esther smiled. "Yes, Eleanor is very clever in her way; so clever, in fact, that I often wonder she isn't | | 54 a bit cleverer. In places one sometimes comes suddenly to the end of her cleverness—so suddenly that one is in danger of falling over the edge." That is another of the delights of kinship: relations can talk to one another about one another without a shadow of disloyalty.

"I know: like the coast of Norfolk."

"To a certain extent she is so wonderfully shrewd and sharp," Esther continued, "and, as the country people say, so quick at the uptake; and then suddenly you say something that she doesn't understand in the least."

Westerham looked tenderly at his companion. "I can quite understand that she doesn't understand you. It would immensely surprise me if she did."

"Well, she does in some things and not in others."

"Precisely; she does in the little things and not in the big ones."

Esther smiled again. "How clever of you to see all that! But it is quite true."

"I can see more. I can see that she is such a past mistress in dealing with little things that she sometimes makes the big things seem little."

"Yes, yes, she did so this very afternoon. She was so funny about her early love-affairs that she made me feel that all early love-affairs are more or less funny."

"But they are not! Believe me, Esther, they are among the most serious things in the world."

"I know they are. But you could never feel it when you were talking to Eleanor. When you are talking to Eleanor, you feel that love-affairs are funny; just as when you are talking to Mamma, you feel that they are wrong. And yet all the-time, in your inmost heart, you know that they are neither wrong nor | | 55 funny, but are among the most solemn and beautiful things in the whole world; but you never have the courage to say so. At least I never have."

Wilfred's heart contracted with a spasm of pity for the sweet, crushed spirit that betrayed itself so unconsciously; but all he said was: "Why does she call the Duke Tammy? It doesn't strike me as a ducal name."

"When we first knew him his name was Tamford: his father was still alive, so we called him Tammy for short. And we have never got out of the habit of calling him Tammy."

"I see. And what do you call his eldest son?"

"We call him Jocko."

By this time they had reached the top of the hill, and the glorious Weald of Kent was spread out before their feet.

"By Jove! isn't it a sight?" Westerham exclaimed. "I feel like Moses looking upon the Promised Land! I don't wonder this view makes you think about the Millennium."

Esther gave a sign of rapture. "Isn't it glorious? I believe I love it more every time I see it! And yet," she added, the light dying out of her face, "I sometimes feel that it is wrong of me to enjoy mere natural beauty so much."

"Wrong, my dear girl? How could it be wrong?"

"Because it is always wrong to put the creature before the Creator; or to lavish upon natural beauty the adoration that we ought only to bestow upon spiritual perfection."

"Oh, Esther, Esther! How often must I try to convince you that your hard, Puritanical views are altogether false? Can't you understand that all natural beauty is an expression of Divine Beauty, and | | 56 that we ought to love and revere the creature for the sake of the Creator. Why put the two in opposition to one another?"

"Because to me they seem in opposition. This wonderful world of Nature is, after all, of the earth earthy, and so is at warfare with the spiritual and heavenly. Therefore I feel it is wicked of me to love it as passionately as I do."

Wilfred fairly groaned in spirit as he saw what havoc the stern creed of her forefathers had wrought upon this tender, beauty-loving soul. "Esther, I verily believe you think it is intrinsically better to perform a disagreeable duty than an agreeable one, and to gaze at an unpleasing sight rather than at a pleasing one!"

Esther looked surprised. "Of course I do. How could I think otherwise? A duty that is agreeable almost ceases to be a duty and becomes a pleasure."

"I admit that duty has to be done whether it is agreeable or whether it isn't; but I cannot see that its disagreeableness adds to its merit."

"But of course it does, Wilfred; I should have thought anybody could see that."

"Now supposing," persisted Westerham, "that you were in doubt as to which of two courses of conduct were the right one, and one course was pleasant to you and the other was unpleasant: do you mean to tell me that you would argue that the unpleasant course was the one you ought to follow?"

"Certainly I should. Otherwise where do self-denial and self-sacrifice come in?"

"I don't believe they come in at all on their own merits; they only come in with regard to other people."

Esther looked grieved. She hated anything approaching a disagreement between her cousin and | | 57 herself, and would gladly have given way to him in anything except in what she considered a matter of principle. On such points she was as adamant. "Oh, Wilfred! self-denial and self-sacrifice are of intrinsic virtue in themselves, quite apart from anything or anybody else."

"I can't see it," Wilfred retorted hotly. "I can see that it is good to go without a thing in order that somebody else may have it; but I can see no good in going without anything just for the sake of going without it."

"Oh, I can! I can see that it is good for me not to have a thing I particularly want, even if no one else has it."

"My dear Esther, what a horrible idea! I will admit that if by wearing a hair shirt I could enable some one else to put on a linen one, all well and good: by putting on the hair shirt I am performing an unselfish and righteous act. But if I put on the hair shirt and leave the linen one in the wardrobe, I am guilty of an act of folly which is of no advantage to either God or man."

But Esther shook her head. "No, Wilfred, you are wrong: the wearing of a hair shirt—metaphorically speaking—is a good thing in itself, quite apart from its indirect effects."

"It seems to me that motley is the only wear for you, sweet coz—not hair shirting—if you have such foolish ideas as these."

"Don't you see, Wilfred, we were sent into this world to do our duty, not just to be happy?"

"Certainly we were; but I maintain that the two ought to be synonymous, and that the real importance of doing our duty consists in the fact that in the doing of it our only true and lasting happiness lies."

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Esther sighed. "I am afraid yours is rather a selfish doctrine, Wilfred."

Lord Westerham blushed with the shyness that always seizes a young Englishman when he tries to speak about the things that lie nearest to his heart. "Indeed it isn't; and I must have expressed myself badly to make you think so. Hang it all, Esther! it is jolly hard to put things into words, but what I mean is this: we are sent into the world to do the Will of God—and to like doing it: I don't believe He wants us to do His Way against our own; if He did, He could soon make us do it, whether we would or not. What He wishes is for us to want the same things as He wants, and so to be one with Him. He doesn't want us to do the right while all the time we are hankering after the wrong, but to do the right because the right is the only thing we care for."

Poor Esther's face was troubled as Wilfred preached these new and (to her) attractive doctrines. She felt sure they must be dangerous, simply because they were attractive, her passion for the unpalatable being insatiable. Since they appealed to her natural inclinations and instincts, she argued they must be wrong, and therefore ought to be withstood and trampled under foot.

"It seems to me," Wilfred went on, his face still red with the effort of trying to express his inmost thoughts, "that God doesn't care about our ways apart from our wills: He wants our wills to be in harmony with His, and then our ways can take care of themselves; for if our wills are right, our ways will soon follow suit. But your idea seems to be that there is some virtue in our wills going in one direction and our ways in another, and that the further apart these two directions are the more pleased God will be with us."

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Esther longed to accept her cousin's teaching, and therefore struggled all the more fiercely against it. "Yes, I do believe something like that," she persisted. "I think that our natural inclinations ought to be thwarted and trampled upon."

"No, no; they ought to be taught and trained, which is quite a different thing. Of course I agree with you that the fact of our not loving the thing that is right in no way absolves us from the necessity of doing it; but I also maintain that our doing the thing that is right in no way absolves us from the necessity of loving it."

"For my part, I do not see that our own personal inclination comes into the matter at all," Esther remarked rather haughtily.

But to Wilfred this was rank heresy. "Good gracious, Esther, what an awful thing to say! What you call 'our own personal inclination' is the crux of the whole business, and matters more than anything! The sole object of our life here is to make 'our own inclination' in perfect harmony with the Will of God; when that is done, our spiritual education will be complete."

Esther's heart was heavy within her, as she felt that there was a traitor in her own inmost mind only too ready to admit the persuasive and (as she imagined) pernicious foe. It must be glorious to believe, as Wilfred did, that the delights of Art and the beauties of Nature were no dangerous sirens luring souls to destruction, but rather the angels of the Lord leading man upwards from earth to heaven: how she longed to embrace his faith, and so to end the long and weary conflict between the aestheticism of her mind and the asceticism of her spirit—that warfare which had been going on within her ever since she was a little child! | | 60 Suddenly there came into her mind the recollection of a Sunday, more than thirty years ago, when the door of Wyvern Church had been left open during the sermon and she had looked at the lovely view, framed by the old stone porch, instead of at the preacher presiding in the pulpit; and she remembered how severely she had been reprimanded afterwards, and how terrible her remorse had been. In her fear lest her childish sin should be repeated, she hastily put away from her all leaning towards the charms of Art and of Nature, and fortified her faltering spirit by inwardly denouncing them as the lust of the eye and the pride of life.

"I have always been interested," Westerham continued, "in the difference between Hebraism and Hellenism—a difference which, in other forms and under other names, has been present in every phase of the world's history, and which is, in short, the difference between you and me at the present moment. I stand for the Greek, with his love of joy and beauty, and you for the Jew, with his passion for duty."

Esther corrected him. "With his passion for righteousness, I think you mean: that was the ruling passion of the Jew."

"Yes, perhaps you are right. I accept your amendment."

"Well then, Wilfred, can't you see that if you accept my amendment you admit that the Hebraistic ideal is the right one? Righteousness is—must be—a higher thing than joy and beauty."

"Certainly I admit that under what we call the Old Dispensation the Jew's ideal was higher than the Greek's. But I go further than that. I maintain that under the New Dispensation the two ideals are combined. The Jew sought righteousness rather than happiness—the Greek strove for happiness rather than | | 61 righteousness; now there is neither Jew nor Greek, but we are all one in Christ. It is no longer a question of our either being good or being happy, but of being good because we are happy, and happy because we are good. I think the fine old verse pretty well expresses my creed in this matter—

'"Live while you live," the epicure will say,
"And give to pleasure every fleeting day ":
"Live while you live," the zealous preacher cries,
"And give to God each moment as it flies."
Lord, in my life the two combined shall be;
I live to pleasure while I live to Thee.'"

Early training dies hard, especially in these immature minds who have never ventured far afield from the parental track. And so it was with Lady Esther. "Your views are very beautiful," she said with a wistful note in her voice, "and I should love to be able to think as you do, but I can't. The whole of religion seems to me to be bound up with self-denial and self-sacrifice, and I do not think we were sent into this world to be happy or to enjoy ourselves."

"Well then, I do: but to be happy and to enjoy ourselves in our perfect fulfilment of the Divine Law. We are sent into the world to be happy, dear Esther, but to be happy with the highest kind of happiness."

And then the conversation drifted away from controversial matters into those many regions where the two cousins saw eye to eye. Although they did not always agree with one another, they invariably understood one another; and perfect comprehension—far more than complete acquiescence—is the truest basis for friendship.

It may have been because of his artistic faculty of putting himself in another person's place, or it may have been because of the bond of kinship between | | 62 them, but anyhow, Wilfred, though he did not agree with Esther, completely understood her point of view. He did not think as she did: but he knew exactly why she thought so.

As they were strolling homewards, Esther said: "You are a most wonderfully understanding person, Wilfred. I wonder what makes you so clever at getting inside other people's minds."

"I don't know. Probably it is a question of temperament rather than of cleverness: a sign that I possess the dramatic instinct, and so am an adept at playing different parts."

A nice little smile played round Esther's mouth. "Probably it is, but you yourself don't think so."

"How did you find that out? I must return the compliment as to the wonderful understanding now."

"Tell me what you really think," Esther persisted.

"Well, if you will have it, my own theory—for which I have not the slightest thread of authority, mind you—is that we have all lived on this earth before, and so we understand the people who are the sort of people that we ourselves used once to be."

Esther gave a little gasp. Such flagrant unorthodoxy undoubtedly shocked her, but she felt, nevertheless, a certain amount of sinful pleasure in the shock. Wilfred was perfectly conscious both of the shock and of the pleasure derived from it, so he continued the process. "To my mind the idea of former incarnations is a tenable—though an absolutely unproved—theory, and does away with so much of the apparent injustice of this life."

"How?" asked Esther, her innocent face alive with guilty interest.

''Well, it seems awfully unfair—if this is absolutely our first appearance—that you should be born Lady | | 63 Esther Wyvern, and I the heir to a peerage, while thousands of equally deserving infants inherit the slums and the starvation of the dark places of the earth; but if our positions were reversed in former lives, and they were then wicked and bloated aristocrats, and we humble and devout slaves, the thing isn't so unjust after all, don't you see? We have all deserved as good as we have got."

Again there was a trace of her mother's haughtiness in Lady Esther's manner. "I think that it is the duty of everybody to submit to the lot ordained for them."

"But it's a jolly sight easier to submit to a thing when you can see the sense of it than when you can't," was her cousin's pertinent reply.

"And I don't think that men and women have the right to reason about the path which God has chosen for them to tread," she continued as if he had not spoken.

"It mayn't be their right, but it is most certainly their habit," retorted Wilfred, with a laugh. Esther's occasional little haughtinesses—so foreign to her usual almost deprecating gentleness—always amused and attracted him. He had been accustomed to the society of far handsomer and cleverer women than she, but the perfect high-breeding of these new-found relations of his—with its delicate flavour of unassuming pride and unconscious stupidity—had a wonderful fascination for him. He had lived so long in an atmosphere of brilliant egotism and self-conscious charm, that this experience of a pride too great to try to be clever and too sublimely self-assured to trouble to be attractive, was to him a most restful and delightful change. In the aristocracy of intellect there must, in the very nature of things, always be a certain amount of rivalry, because the places have yet to be gained and the prizes | | 64 to be won; but in the aristocracy of birth there can be no such spirit of competition, since the prizes were awarded before the birth of the prize-winners, and their places already assigned to them in the Table of Precedence. Strawberry-leaves come by nature, and laurels by grace; and it is still an open question which form the more creditable coronet.

"But never mind inequalities of position," continued Westerham, "think of inconsistencies of character; they are also explained by my reincarnation theory. Look at yourself, for instance; you are partly a pantheistic nymph and partly a devout nun—by no means suitable spirits to be packed into the same envelope. But explain it by the idea that you have been both a nymph and a nun, and some of the attributes of each still survive in your character."

"Oh, Wilfred, how interesting and how true! And they not only survive, they fight with each other."

"Precisely; I've often watched them at it. I expect that when you were a nymph you were a bit too pagan and beauty-loving, and so had to live again as a nun in order to balance yourself; and when you were a nun you overdid it in the opposite direction, so now you are having a third chance to try to get the right hang of the thing at last; but as the nun was the later incarnation, her influence is the stronger."

For the moment, Esther was so carried away by the fascination of Wilfred's theory—to her, in her limited mental atmosphere, an entirely new one—that she did not realize how far afield she was wandering in Bypath Meadow. "That would explain," she said, "why one so often feels as if one were two different people. I frequently do, and it makes life so difficult. I shall never forget the nymph and the nun, Wilfred; they seem to solve so many problems that have often | | 65 puzzled me. And do you think everybody has lived before?

"Personally I do; but, as I have already told you, I have not the slightest warrant for my belief, except its reasonableness."

"But everybody doesn't have that dual nature which makes me find life so hard sometimes; at least they don't seem to," said Esther.

"My explanation of that is that the people who are consistent rather than complex—the people, in short, who find life comparatively easy—have always been more or less the same sort of people in their previous incarnations. Now if, in your pagan days, you had been a vestal virgin instead of a nymph, things would have been pretty easy for you, because the vestal and the nun would have got on all right together, and would soon have fallen into line, so that by now—in your third incarnation—you would be pretty well, so to speak, of a piece."

Esther laughed softly: Wilfred's whimsical ideas exactly suited what he would have called the nymph-side of her. "And there was really nothing in common between the nymph and the nun."

"Oh! yes, there was—one very important thing: both the nymph and the nun belonged to the aristocracy of their respective times: the nymph was descended from gods and goddesses, and the nun from paladins and Plantagenets, and they had neither of them anything in common with the plebeian populace. Now, as for your sister——" And here Westerham's grey eyes twinkled with amusement.

"Yes, what about Eleanor? I am sure she is never worried with dual natures and complexities of character. Eleanor must always have been the same sort of person."

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Westerham nodded. "She must, but not always of the same rank. I say it with all reverence "—and here his eyes twinkled again—"as parsons always remark before their most irreverent utterances, but I feel sure that in some bygone and remote existence the Duchess belonged to the People with a capital P. Otherwise she would never have all that common sense and adaptability. Aristocracies do not adapt, they command."

Esther drew herself up. "Eleanor can command when she likes. I assure you she can be très grande dame when she chooses."

"But she knows when to exercise her rights and when to waive them, and no true aristocracy ever knows that. If they did, the world would still be innocent of such bugbears as republics and revolutions."

"However, I feel sure she was always a cheerful, sensible person, in whatever age she lived, don't you?"

"Certainly," replied Westerham; "but I cannot imagine her flitting through primæval forests, or floating on the clouds in Olympus, or even eating her heart out in a mediæval convent. I can rather picture her as one of the white-footed, laughing girls whose sires had marched to Rome; or, later, as a merry wife of Windsor."

Here Esther again demurred. "I think she might very well have been a great abbess, one of those who ruled over vast territories, don't you know?"

"If so, it was one of those lay sort of abbesses who got married and visited about among their friends. She never, never could have been a demure and devout nun, as you were."

"Then you think," continued Esther, after a slight pause, while the fresh breeze coloured her cheek and ruffled her hair until she looked almost young again, | | 67 "that the reason why the first time we meet some people and yet feel that we have known them all our lives, is that we really did know them in a previous existence?"

"Of course I do. I always love those lines of Kipling's—

Or ever the stately years had gone,
To the world beyond the grave,
I was a king in Babylon
And you were a Christian slave.'

I feel sure that you and I have met before, Esther, because we understood each other so well from the very beginning. I wonder if I played shepherd to your nymph, or father-confessor to your nun; or if you filled in an interval by taking the part of a gently born Puritan maiden while I was rollicking as a jolly Cavalier."

Esther was silent for a minute, drinking in the beauty of the scene as they passed from the park into the woods, where the ground was covered with daffodils dancing in the merry March wind. Then she said: "I like your theory, Wilfred, it makes life so much more interesting and so much less hard. I mean if one feels one's life slipping away, and there has been nothing in it but dull routine, one is inclined to murmur, though, of course, I know that murmuring is wrong; we ought to accept our fate, whatever it is. But if we feel that there are other lives before and behind us—lives on this earth, under the same conditions as this one, and filled with all the common, earthly blessings that this present one has lacked—it puts quite a different face on things. One doesn't mind being a dull old maid in the intervals between dancing as a dryad and serving as a Christian slave," she added, with a wistful smile; "sitting out a dance | | 68 now and then, you know, is quite different from going partnerless through the whole evening."

Wilfred looked down on her very tenderly, and something stirred in his heart which was neither friendship nor cousinly affection. Perhaps the spring in the air was responsible for it, with its magic message of a new heaven and a new earth—or perhaps the fairy-like beauty of the wood through which they were passing, which looked like some fair temple with its pavements of gold and its rafters of fir—or perhaps there was something in his theory after all that they two had known and loved each other in some previous existence; but, whatever the reason, the fact remained that, as Lord Westerham looked at the tall and graceful figure at his side, and realized how tragic is the fate of any woman who feels age coming upon her before she has tasted the full flavour of youth, he experienced an almost passionate pity, and something else which, though not exactly pity, is supposed to be near akin to it.

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