- CHAPTER VI BLISS
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AFTER a few ineffable minutes, while Esther, for the first time in all her forty years, tasted of the cup of human happiness, she drew herself—pale with emotion—out of her lover's embrace.
"You must go now, dearest," she implored in a trembling voice, "I cannot bear any more happiness at present. I feel as if I should die of the bliss of it all."
Westerham was seized with compunction as he saw how white her lips had grown under his kisses. He feared that she was going to faint. He, too, was excited, but he could take his happiness more calmly than she could: he had not waited and thirsted for it so long.
"Dearest, let me get you something," he cried, looking vainly at the decimated tea-table for a suitable restorative.
Esther gave him a wan smile. "No, don't trouble about me. I shall be all right in a minute. It was just the bliss of it that made me feel faint and dizzy for a moment. You see, no man has ever kissed me before."
A commoner-minded man might have smiled at this reception of her first kiss by a woman no longer young; but Westerham felt inclined to bow his head and take his shoes off his feet because he was standing on holy ground. To him there was something
92infinitely beautiful—as well as infinitely pathetic—in the revelation of what love meant to this lady of high degree, who had waited so long and so patiently for its coming, and who welcomed it with the strength of a woman and the freshness of a girl. And his heart thrilled with a deep and abiding joy as he realized what a privilege was his in having won such a love for his own.
He was very tender with her—he understood her so completely—and she soon recovered herself under his cousinly care, and was able to look her happiness in the face without reeling with the intoxication of its ecstasy. Then—when he saw she was able to bear it—he put off the cousin and again put on the lover. "Essie, do you really love me?" he whispered, taking her once more in his arms.
She laid her head on his shoulder in a rapture of such perfect rest and peace and absolute satisfaction as she had never dreamed of in her life before. She had often felt lonely and neglected and desolate as she had seen love flitting like a butterfly among fairer flowers, but always passing her by because of her lack of beauty. And she had puzzled and wondered and rebelled—as far as so innately gentle a spirit was capable of rebellion—as she pondered on the question why the one gift of personal beauty should outweigh all the others put together in the scales of a woman's happiness, and why this only gift that mattered should have been denied to her.
But now all her wonder and rebellion were over: Wilfred had come and had turned this darkness into the light of a happiness too great to be expressed or understood. It was good for her that she had been afflicted with so long a period of hope deferred: her former loneliness and disappointment only seemed to
93make her present joy the more complete. No young girl, who accepts happiness as her right and as a matter of course, could appreciate the full delicacy of its flavour as did Esther, who had thirsted for it so long in vain. Love may offer his syllabubs to girls yet in the schoolroom, but it is only women who have lived and suffered that can taste his sacramental wine.
There is a Latin proverb to the effect that he gives twice who gives quickly: and this may be true of the gifts of men. But with the gifts of God it is otherwise. He keeps the best wine till last, and then gives it—not in wine cups—but in waterpots filled to the brim.
"Sweetheart, do you really love me?" repeated Wilfred, as Esther remained silent from excess of happiness.
Then she spoke. "Love you, Wilfred? I should just think I do—more than I can ever tell you or make you understand."
"I don't know about making me understand! You see, I can do something in that line myself."
"Yes, dear one; but it cannot mean as much to you as it does to me. In loving me, you have not only given me yourself, Wilfred, you have given me myself also. Until a woman has been loved by a man she is not a real woman, she is only a sort of imitation; and I was getting so old, and so tired of waiting for the awakening that never came, that I was beginning to be afraid I should never become a real woman at all."
Westerham, in a perfect passion of tenderness, kissed the brown head that lay on his shoulder. There was so much of the woman in his nature—as there is in the nature of most men who possess the artistic temperament—that Esther's lack of youth and beauty
94appealed to him as the presence of these qualities could never have done. The very things that would have repelled the ordinary masculine man only served to bind him to her still more closely. "My own darling," he whispered, "does it mean as much to you as that?"
"Yes, and much more besides. Your love has not only given me the kingdom of my own womanhood, but it has given me the earth and the fulness thereof as well. Until now, I have always loved Nature, but with a love that made me unhappy. The sight of a distant view, or of a field carpeted with buttercups, never failed to fill me with ecstasy; but the ecstasy was always tinged with sadness. Now the bluebells and the buttercups and the distant views fill me with pure happiness, and I seem to know the meaning of them all. And the meaning is you."
Thus it is with the sons and daughters of men when they are young, and Esther Wyvern was still a girl at heart in spite of her forty summers. The beauties of Nature stir them to a vague unrest until Love comes their way; and then they know why the fields are carpeted with flowers and the sky with stars: their vague unrest is changed into unsullied joy.
And afterwards—when Love has either passed on out of sight, or else has settled down into the daily routine of domestic peace—do the fields and the flowers and the distant hills lose their magic for the sons and daughters of men? Not so: there is a further and a higher stage, when the mountains and the sunsets and the flower-strewn fields bring a deeper and a more glorious message than they did in the days of youth: the message that they are but the expressions of a Love greater than any human love—but the earnest of a more perfect beauty and a more intense happiness yet in store. And then once again the sons and
95daughters of men know why the fields are carpeted with flowers and the sky with stars, and why the beauty of a wood in spring or of a sunset in summer is sometimes almost too great to be borne: it is to remind them that they are also the sons and daughters of God.
So Westerham and his love sat together in the shade of the fine old beech-tree and sipped the cup of human happiness, until they saw the Duchess and Lady Westerham returning from an inspection of the latter's herbaceous border. They then unlocked their respective arms, and sat decorously upright on their respective chairs, while Esther gave a final injunction to her lover: "Don't tell them about it yet, Wilfred: let us keep our happiness to ourselves for this one day, and then I'll tell Mamma in the morning."
On that same Sunday afternoon Perkins sat surrounded by his three lady friends, like King Arthur and his three queens in the magic barge. Dinner was over in the servants' hall, and the four head servants had retired from presiding over that somewhat mixed assembly to take their Sabbath-day dessert in the more select and refined atmosphere of the housekeeper's room. Among the proletariat of the lower chamber Perkins and Mrs. Brown permitted no discussion, or even conversation, concerning the habits and the doings of that sacred institution, the Wyvern Family; but this rule was relaxed in the dignified seclusion of the housekeeper's room. This small committee partook more or less of the nature of a Cabinet Council, as compared with the rough and tumble of the House of Commons, the latter popular assembly being represented by the social medley of the servants' hall: there were no reporters present, and all remarks uttered inside the sacred enclosure of Mrs. Brown's four walls were regarded as absolutely confidential,
96and were never allowed to go beyond them. According to the unwritten law prevalent among well-trained servants in what are called "good places," this rule was rigorously kept; and Perkins and his three attendant queens would have considered it as unthinkable to report the doings of The Family to uninitiated ears, as would a Minister of the Crown to disclose to the outer world a Cabinet secret.
"I believe that your wish for Lady Esther to secure a suitable alliance is coming true, Miss Clark," Perkins genially remarked, as he sipped his glass of sherry and discussed his almonds and raisins; "if I'm not much mistaken, she and his lordship won't be long in making a match of it."
Clark bubbled over with innocent joy at the idea of a romance in high life so near home. "Just what I have been thinking for some time past, Mr. Perkins."
"I'm not one much for matrimony, having learnt by sad experience what it really is," said Mrs. Brown, as if other married people had only grasped the shadow of the Divine Ordinance, while it had been reserved for her, and her alone, to sound the tragic depths of the actual substance: "but if ever there was a marriage that I could approve of, it would be one between our dear young lady and his lordship. Lady Esther would be just the right mistress for the Hall, as I'm sure she'd have everything just as it was in her ladyship's time, and no ridiculous newfangled ways and improvements that a strange lady might be set upon."
"It would be nice, too, for her ladyship, having Lady Esther settled so near," said Parker, who, under her somewhat chilling demeanour, adored her mistress not one whit less than Mrs. Brown and Perkins did. " In fact I don't see how Lady Esther could marry any one at a distance, considering her ladyship's age: it
97would be downright cruel, after staying with her ladyship all these years, to go and leave her now."
"I don't know about that, Miss Parker," said Perkins, speaking down from his higher altitude of masculine wisdom: " ladies have to lead their own lives and not the lives of their parents, in all classes of society, and it often quite upsets me to see single ladies left solitary after their parents' death, having, as you may say, given up all chances of a comfortable settling for their parents' sake, and missed the happiness of a solitude o' ducks."
"Husbands don't grow on every bush after you've passed thirty," snapped out Parker.
"And a good thing they don't," added Mrs. Brown, "or else folks would be picking them! Marriage is always more or less of a risk, and the older you get, the greater risk it is, and the less chance there is of happiness. I was turned thirty when I married Brown."
After the slight pause which was always given by courtesy after any reference to Mrs. Brown's matrimonial troubles, Perkins remarked, "Now, for my part, I should have thought it was just the other way, Mrs. Brown, and that the older people are, the more sense they would have in suiting themselves to what you might call each other's little peculiarities and avoiding what the French call a Miss Alliance." Although Perkins would have been terrified at the thought of any actual plunge into matrimony, he liked to toy with the idea, and he very much liked to feel that he was still young enough to be reckoned as a prize in the matrimonial market. Therefore any suggestion as to an age-limit in this department of life always ruffled his generally imperturbable spirit.
98self to a husband's little peculiarities, when those little peculiarities take the form of scullerymaids and underhousemaids; and the older you are when you are married, the sooner those little peculiarities are likely to show themselves." Like many matrons getting on in life, Mrs. Brown permitted herself a certain license of conversation before the unmarried portion of her own sex, which was apt to shock the more squeamish members of both sexes. This, in Perkins's eyes, was the housekeeper's only fault. As is the habit of many bachelors of uncertain age, he cherished a most exaggerated conception of the infantile innocence of all unmarried females. Of course, he had never put it into words; but deep down in his chivalrous old soul there lurked the idea that those ladies whom he would gallantly have described as "unappropriated blessings" never thought about anything less dazzlingly white than Madonna lilies, or more material than young-eyed cherubims. Therefore it never failed to distress him when Mrs. Brown kept on her shoes—and sometimes rather muddy shoes, too—when treading upon the virgin soil of Miss Parker and Miss Clark's maiden consciousness.
But the sweet-natured Clark soon restored his mental equilibrium. "Oh, how lovely it would be," she exclaimed, clasping her hands in girlish ecstasy, "if Lady Esther and his lordship did make a match of it! Think of the wedding and the trousseau and the bridesmaids' dresses! It would be a fair treat!"
"I should think Lady Esther would hardly have white satin and orange-blossom and bridesmaids at her age," said the uncompromising Parker; "a quiet wedding in her travelling-dress would be much more suitable as far as she is concerned, and much less fatiguing for my lady."
Clark's pretty blue eyes filled with tears at the mere suggestion of such a thing. "Oh, pray don't say so, Miss Parker! I couldn't bear the thought of Lady Esther being married in anything but white satin and orange-blossom. I'd as soon she was married in a registry office as in a travelling-dress; there seems nothing sacred about either of them as there does about white satin and 'The Voice that breathed o'er Eden.' I always cry at weddings, even if I don't know the parties that are being married—it all seems so solemn and beautiful; but if it was my own lady being married I know I should fairly cry my eyes out; and oh, how I should enjoy it!"
Perkins thoroughly approved of Miss Clark's sentiments: practically they were his own, though he would not have dared to say so before the Allied Powers. "And as for her ladyship," he added, "she'd stand it all right, mark my words! She stood Lady Eleanor's wedding, so she can stand Lady Esther's."
"She was three-and-twenty years younger," snapped Parker.
"So she was—so she was. Lady Eleanor was quite the June fill, as one might say, at that time, and her ladyship—though past, her premire juness—was still what you might call in her prime. But though I can't deny as her ladyship might find it a bit tiring to have a proper wedding, with a reception after, and everything come ill foot, still I think it is but fair to Lady Esther for her to have the same sort of wedding as her sister had. After all, a lady's wedding is her own affair, and not her mother's!" The glass of sherry had flung wide the flood-gates of Perkins's French.
100matrimonial memories, so that she was enjoying herself in her own way quite as much as Perkins was in his. "Still, perhaps it's all for the best, as I couldn't have borne for my dear mother to have to endure all that I had to put up with: she couldn't have stood it."
"I'm sure it's a wonder how you stood it yourself Mrs. Brown," said Parker, nobly rising to the occasion.
"It is, Miss Parker—little short of a miracle, I call it, that Brown was taken and I was left, considering all that I had to bear for two long years. I'm certain if he hadn't been taken when he was I should have been: I couldn't have stood much more of him."
The others fairly quailed at the prospect of the alternative which Providence had so wisely avoided so much so, in fact, that Perkins felt it incumbent upon him to administer to each of the ladies another half-glass, and to himself a whole one.
"She'd make a sweet wife, would Lady Esther,' exclaimed Clark; "and in evening dress with a diamond tiara she'd look quite the Countess."
"In figure, but not in face," Miss Parker corrected her.
"She'd be the Countess," said Mrs. Brown sternly "so it wouldn't matter what she looked. I'm no such a one for beauty as some that I could mention in my opinion it's only skin-deep. I dare say it's all very well for actresses and ballet-girls and people of that kind to have pretty faces; in fact, the poor creatures have to—their living depends on it; but the Aristocracy" (Mrs. Brown always thought of the Aristocracy with a capital A, just as she always thought of the Bible with a capital B) "are independent of such things. There's something better than mere beauty, Miss Parker, and that's birth and breeding."
"Quite so, quite so, Mrs. Brown," said Perkins, the gentle warmth of the sherry in his veins making him even more conciliatory than usual. "As you say, mere beauty can spring from nothing, but it takes generations of refinement and what you might call bong-tong to produce the genesis squaw of the real Aristocracy." By which somewhat remarkable statement Perkins did not mean to enrol himself as a disciple of the doctrine of spontaneous generation; but secondarily to hurl scorn at the good looks of the proletariat, and primarily to pacify Mrs. Brown.
But, alas! the extra half-glass of wine had still further broken down the already inadequate fences which this good lady placed around the innocent susceptibilities of the unmarried. "The only thing against the match, to my mind, is that Lady Esther isn't as young as she has been, and it would be a dreadful pity if there wasn't an heir, and the title had to die out, and the property go trailing off to some distant cousin."
Perkins really did not know what to say, he was so distressed for what he called "the young ladies' ears" to be soiled by such a remark as this; yet, on the other hand, he was incapable of reproving Mrs. Brown; so he blushed crimson and cleared his throat, and refrained from meeting the eye of either of the spinsters, while the hardened matron calmly skated on as if the thin ice had never so much as cracked. 'Still, taking everything into consideration, I do hope that his lordship will marry Lady Esther, and make her the mistress of the Hall in her dear Mamma's place. Nobody would carry out her ladyship's customs as Lady Esther would, and I couldn't bear to see all that lovely old china—in particular the Crown Derby coffee-cups—handed over to some strange
102young lady that wouldn't know how to appreciate them."
Perkins sighed in mingled relief and sympathy. "And the best dessert-service, too, with the rose do Barry border and the portraits of French ladies in the middle: think of that going into what you might call strange hands! Often have I looked at them portraits after superintending the footmen setting out the dessert, and thought what beautiful faces the ladies had at the court of Lewis Quinsey. You always used to wash up that particular service with your own hands, if you remember, Mrs. Brown, it being too valuable, as you might say, to be entrusted into the hands of young folks; and I used to feel quite glad to think that no ignorant butterfingers would have the washing of those lovely faces." Perkins was always more sentimental than usual after his weekly glass of sherry at dessert, and as on this particular occasion the one glass happened to have been two, he was more sentimental than ever in consequence.
"It wasn't the beauty I minded, but the expense," replied Mrs. Brown. "Her ladyship told me that those dessert-plates were worth five pounds apiece, and I wasn't going to let any young idiots fling fivepound-notes down the waste pipe by smashing the plates and throwing away the pieces. I knew their thoughtless ways!"
"Lady Esther would feel just the same respect for the family portraits and the old china and the gold plate as her ladyship did," remarked Perkins; "in fact, perhaps more so, as they were her own relations, so to speak, and only her ladyship's relations-in-law. Though, after all, I suppose a good wife feels just as proud of her husband's things as she does of her own."
"Not at all, Mr. Perkins; quite the reverse. I'm sure I feel no pride in Brown's first wife, nor in that daguerreotype of her that hangs in my bedroom: I feel nothing but the deepest pity for the woman, whenever I look at it."
"I wonder you keep it, Mrs. Brown," remarked Parker. "If I married a widower, I couldn't bear to have pictures of his first wife papering the walls. I should throw them all behind the fire in pretty quick time."
"It just shows what a generous disposition Mrs. Brown has to keep it hanging up all these years," added Clark; "and it no ornament either!" It did not occur to the guileless young woman that if the portrait had been more of an ornament, Mrs. Brown might have been less likely to preserve it
Mrs. Brown bridled gloomily. "I don't know-about my generous disposition, Miss Clark, though thank you all the same for the compliment, which I take in the spirit in which it was spoken; but I do say it is a bit of a comfort when you are down-hearted to look at the picture of somebody who was as miserable as you are. It seems to make things more even."
"And they ought to be even, Mrs. Brown," murmured Perkins; "for I'm sure nobody in all the world deserves trouble less than you do, nor has had more of it." Which remark showed that—according to the fixed ritual of Sunday afternoons—the butler's permanently pacific state of mind was developing into a temporarily somnolent one, the passive love of peace being replaced by the active longing for rest: so the younger ladies discreetly withdrew to their own apartments, leaving the two old people to enjoy their afternoon nap.
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