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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LORD WESTERHAM was seated at breakfast the next morning in a very enviable frame of mind. He had attained his heart's desire, namely, the love of the first woman he himself had ever loved; and the attainment of one's heart's desire is—just at the beginning, at any rate—a most satisfying state of affairs. Later on, the human heart is prone to become accustomed to the desire attained, and to set itself upon something still unattainable; but this progressive movement does not set in immediately. The attainment is always followed by a hiatus of complete content.

It is not to be supposed that Westerham had lived to the age of twenty-eight without experiencing more than one youthful fancy. He was far too human for such exemption. But these passing attachments had confined themselves to the outer courts of his affections, and had never penetrated into his Holy of Holies. Esther, however, had roused all that was highest and noblest and most chivalrous in his nature; she had appealed to the best in him, and the best had responded to her unconscious call. He had seen her beautiful soul shining through her plain face until he had almost come to find her face beautiful as well.

It is true that men will always fall in love with beauty; and it is true that the majority of men are only capable of perceiving the beauty which is visible to the outward eye; but it is also true that the minority, | | 105 who are able to see and to recognize beauty of spirit, will fall in love with it as certainly as their blinder brothers will with beauty of form. It has often been said that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder; but this does not mean that beauty is subjective rather than objective, nor that it exists in the imagination of the one who possesses it. Beauty is a real and a tangible thing, and not merely a question of taste or fashion. But it depends upon the eyes of the beholder in so far as some eyes can pierce below the surface and some can only discern the obvious. Most people think they can see. through a stone as far as most other people; but it takes a sculptor to see through the stone to the statue hidden within it. Most people can hear the piping of the birds and the rustling of the leaves on a May morning; but it takes an artist or a poet to hear the valleys break forth into singing, or to catch echoes of the chanting of the morning stars.

Not only did Westerham deeply and truly love Esther for what she was, but also for what she represented. To him she stood for all that was finely bred and delicately nurtured—for all the grace and order of an old civilization as compared with the vigour and bustle of a new one. She was to him as still waters or as silent woodlands—an incarnation of peace and repose. She was also to him an embodiment of all that was best in social life—an emblem of unconscious dignity and of ordered grace. To his inward ear she was a sacred oratorio; to his inward eye a stately minuet.

Therefore it came about that as Lord Westerham sat alone at breakfast at Wyvern's End, and dwelt in thought upon Esther's excellencies and upon his own good luck in winning the love of such a paragon, he was a very happy young man indeed. Only a few | | 106 years ago he had still been a lonely literary man of good family and no fortune, whose sole passport consisted of a distant and visionary coronet, more than partially obscured by three intervening lives; now he was an earl, with a large rent-roll and a most beautiful estate, and was engaged to a woman who possessed all the attributes that he most admired in womankind. Surely for the moment he was to be envied.

The butler's entry interrupted his reverie. "If you please, my lord, Lady Esther has called, and wants to see your lordship as soon as possible."

Westerham started from his seat, and blushed like a girl. Love had indeed changed his stately and reserved Esther for her to come to him before he had found time to go to her! He could hardly believe his ears.

"Lady Esther, did you say, Symonds? " he vaguely repeated, vainly endeavouring to hide his surprise and emotion at such an unexpected event.

But Symonds was one of those well-trained servants who perceive nothing while seeing everything. "Yes, my lord. And I showed her ladyship into the library, and told her that your lordship was just finishing breakfast."

"All right, I'll go to her ladyship at once, and you can take the breakfast things away—I've quite finished." And Westerham dashed out of the room, while Symonds leisurely summoned his attendant footmen to remove the remains of his lordship's meal.

Wilfred was immensely flattered at Esther's having come to him like this; it gratified him far more than it would have done had he been an older man or she a younger woman. The ordinary man always feels himself in a certain way superior to the woman of his | | 107 choice, and loves her all the more for her fancied inferiority; and the ordinary woman—if she be wise as well as ordinary—will do nothing to dispel this illusion. But when there is a marked disparity of years, and the balance is on the woman's side, the man—if he love her at all—will love her with a boyish adoration which he would never bestow upon a contemporary or a junior. He will worship the one, where he would only pet the others. As to whether the woman prefers to be worshipped or to be petted, that is merely a matter of the woman's taste. But, roughly speaking, she may assume that she will be either the one or the other according as to whether she is the senior or the junior of her lover.

Esther's obvious desire to see him again—a desire so strong that it caused her to act in direct opposition both to her character and to her traditions—went to Wilfred's head like wine. He could not help exulting, in a boyish way, at this tribute to his power. There was much of the boy in his composition, as well as much of the woman, otherwise he would never have loved and understood Esther as he did.

"I say, Esther," he cried, as he entered the library, and shut the door after him, "how splendid you are to come up so early! I'd have had breakfast two hours ago if I'd known you were coming, and would have gone across the park to meet you."

The room was so long, and his excitement was so great, that he had time to say all this before he came near enough to where Lady Esther was standing to see her face. But as soon as he did see it his own changed, and his expression of youthful joy was transformed into one of sorrowful bewilderment. For Esther's cheeks were pale from want of sleep, and her eyes were red with weeping, and she looked fully ten | | 108 years older than she had looked only yesterday evening.

"My darling, my own sweetheart, whatever is the matter?" Wilfred exclaimed, as he tried to take her in his arms. "Is your mother ill, or have you had bad news from Stoneham. "

But Esther gently evaded his embrace—that embrace to which she had yielded in such a passion of ecstasy only yesterday. "No, Wilfred dear, there is nothing the matter of that kind. But I have come to tell you that we were both very foolish yesterday afternoon, and that I can never marry you."

Westerham's face went as white as hers. "Good heavens, Esther! what on earth do you mean? There is nothing against me; and surely we are old enough to please ourselves."

Esther's heart melted as she saw the misery in the face that she loved. It had been so bright with boyish gladness when he entered the room, and now she had wiped all the gladness out as if with a sponge. "Oh, my darling, my darling, don't mind so much!" she cried, as she threw her arms round his neck and drew the dark head on to her shoulder, and tried to comfort him as his mother would have done. At that moment the maternal element in her love was very strong.

But he would not be comforted so easily. He was a man as well as a boy, and he wanted explanations as well as endearments. "Come and sit beside me here, and tell me all about it," he said, drawing her down beside him on to one of the large settees which were dotted about the room; "do you mean to say that your mother makes any objection to our marriage?"

"No, oh no! She knows nothing at all about it; I haven't told her. And that is why I came so | | 109 early—to prevent you from telling her or anybody else."

Wilfred's face was still a study of mystified pain. "Then what on earth is the matter? I wish you'd tell me the worst and put me out of my misery."

Esther's lip quivered. It was agony to her to see him suffering. "The worst is only this: that I have lain awake all night thinking about it, and about the wonderfulness of your ever loving me; and I've decided that I never will—that it wouldn't be right to marry you."

"But why—why, Esther? Have you got some fatal disease or something? Because if you have, I'll marry you ail the quicker, and nurse you through it and make you well again, as the Brownings did."

Esther laid her hand on his hair again. "My dearest, how good you are! As if I should let you do it!"

"But I should do it, whether you let me or not!"

"It isn't that I'm ill, Wilfred: it is something worse than that, because, as you say, illness is curable. But it is that I'm old—far too old for you—and there is no cure on earth for that."

Westerham threw back his head and laughed aloud with the intensity of his relief. "Is that all? What a fright you've given me for nothing! I really thought there was something the matter."

But Esther did not echo his laugh. Her face grew paler and her mouth more determined than ever: and Lady Esther Wyvern had always possessed a determined mouth. "I know you love me, Wilfred, I shall never doubt that. It will be my joy and my glory as long as I live that once you loved me."

"Once! What a silly word to use! There is no | | 110 once about my love for you, you can make yourself jolly well sure on that score."

"And I love you too, dear: love you more than I can ever express or you can ever understand—more than I ever thought it possible for any creature to love another. And it is because I love you so much that I cannot and will not marry you."

By this time Wilfred had quite recovered his good spirits. Youth is very resilient. Besides, he did not know that expression on Lady Esther's mouth as well as her mother and sister knew it. He had never seen it before. They had.

"Sweetheart, you are talking nonsense," he said;" absolute nonsense!"

"No, I am not; and you must listen to me, Wilfred."

"I am listening; but I don't mind telling you that I think it's a most awful waste of time. And on such a lovely morning too—and the first morning of our engagement!"

But his lightheartedness only served to make Esther's eyes grow more sad and her mouth more determined. "I have been thinking it over," she said, as if repeating a lesson, "and I have decided that it would be wrong—positively wicked—to allow a man as young as you are, and with the world at your feet, to marry a faded old maid like me."

"Faded old nonsense!" he retorted, kissing her; "I never did hear anybody talk such rot! Why, I admire you most immensely, Esther: you know that well enough; I think you are the most elegant and distinguished-looking woman I have ever seen, and I shall be prouder still when you are my wife. So what on earth is all the fuss about?"

But Esther did not budge. "I know you feel like that now, dearest; I expected you would. But a day | | 111 will come when you will thank me for riot marrying you."

"My thanks will be sent from a lunatic asylum then; that's all I can say."

"It would not be right to tie a man like you for life to a woman like me. It wouldn't be fair to you."

"That's my business; I am the judge of that. Do you think I could make you happy, Esther? Answer me straight."

"Of course you could: happier than any woman ever was before, or ever will be again. But I couldn't make you happy for long."

"That again is my business. If you think I couldn't make you happy, say so, and I'll never bother you again. But you say I can. Then the rest is my affair. If I didn't know you could make me happy, I shouldn't have asked you to marry me: I shouldn't have been such a fool. But as I know you can, you've only got to take my word for it and to set about doing it."

But Esther shook her head. "I couldn't be happy if I felt I had done wrong, and I shouldn't feel it was right to let you make me as gloriously happy as I know you could. My conscience would not allow me to take my happiness at the expense of yours."

Even yet Wilfred did not realize how serious the situation was—not even when Esther referred to her conscience. Again, had he been either Lady Westerham or the Duchess, he would have understood what a formidable and implacable foe Esther's conscience could be; but while he had discovered an Esther that they did not know, there had not yet been revealed to him the Esther that they did.

"You see," she continued, "to begin with I am twelve years older than you."

| | 112

"I know you are, and I'm twelve years younger than you. If I can forgive you for the one, I don't see why you shouldn't forgive me for the other."

Westerham was beginning to see that things were serious, though he did not yet grasp how serious they were. But he knew that Lady Esther had a conscience a size too large for her—which is a very serious and troublesome misfit for anybody.

"And it isn't as if I were young for my age," Esther went on.

He contradicted her. "But you are: gloriously young. Your mind is as pure and your heart as fresh as if you were a girl of sixteen. That is why I love you so."

"But I'm not outwardly young: I'm not young to look at."

"You are. Your figure is like a girl's."

Esther took no notice of his interruption. "If I were a beautiful woman it would be different. Then I should feel myself a fit wife for you, in spite of the difference in age. But as it is, my conscience would never allow you to tie yourself for life—you, with your wealth and position and cleverness and charm—to a faded old maid."

"If you say that, it shows that you do not love me: that you don't even know what love is."

At this Esther's composure gave way, although her convictions remained firm: her lip quivered, and tears rolled down her cheeks. "Oh, my darling, my darling, don't say that! It is because I love you so much that I am taking this stand. If I loved you less I might be willing to snatch my happiness at the expense of yours. But loving you as I do, I cannot."

"But nobody asked you to snatch your happiness | | 113 at the expense of mine. All you are asked to do is, by being happy, to make me more so."

"It wouldn't make you permanently happy; and your happiness is the thing I desire most in the whole world."

"You've a funny way of showing your desire, and a still funnier one of trying to fulfil it," remarked Westerham dryly. He was beginning to be angry at last.

"Oh, Wilfred, don't be cross with me and so make it still harder for me to do what is right!"

Westerham got up from his seat by Esther, and began walking up and down the long room. "But it isn't right: that is the whole point of the argument."

"My conscience tells me that it is right, and we must obey our consciences, Wilfred."

"You've got a diseased conscience; I've always told you so: the sort of conscience that strains at gnats, and weighs anise and cummin, and lays upon men's shoulders burdens too heavy to be borne. I knew how it would be. You've given your conscience its head for so long that now it has broken loose and turned and rended you, and is trampling your happiness and mine into the dust."

But all in vain Wilfred argued and entreated and upbraided; nothing could alter Esther's decision. She had made up her mind that it would not be for his permanent happiness to marry a woman as old and unattractive as she was: and having thus made up her mind, nothing would induce her to marry him. Like many gentle and amiable people, Esther had a strong strain of obstinacy in her composition; and if her conscience ranged itself on the side of her will—especially if her inclinations ranged themselves against it—nothing on earth would move her.

| | 114

She always aimed at the thing that she thought right: she generally aimed at the thing that she considered uncomfortable; but when righteousness and discomfort were united in one goal, Lady Esther made a beeline for this goal with undeviating accuracy and persistence.

In this instance the fact that she was thereby making herself and her lover very unhappy indeed, did not in any way shake her resolution: it rather served to confirm her in it. It was too deeply graven in the tablets of her mind for any argument to erase it, that the path of duty was of necessity stony, and that the ways of pleasantness were snares to the feet.

So she and Wilfred parted respectively in tears and anger, and subsequently resumed the contention again and again under similar conditions. And the result was always the same. The gate of Eden was shut-to in their faces, and they might no longer set foot beyond the magic portal. But the angel that guarded the gate was no Divine Messenger, but a monster manufactured after the manner of Frankenstein's: and the uplifted sword, that so effectively barred the way, was no weapon from Heaven's armoury, but a clumsy contrivance fashioned for the occasion out of the raw material of her ladyship's conscience.

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