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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THIS sudden and unexpected cessation in the lovemaking between Lady Esther and her cousin could not fail to catch the family eye; and the perception of this hiatus—with Esther's explanation of it—roused much consternation in the family breast. It had seemed such a satisfactory solution of the unmarried daughter problem that Esther should marry the new peer and carry on the late Earl's traditions in the old home: Lady Westerham not unnaturally shrank from the idea of a complete stranger—as Wilfred was when he succeeded to the title—ruling the little kingdom where she and her late husband had reigned for so long, and introducing new manners and new customs into the charmed circle of Wyvern's End. Until she and Esther returned from their long visit to the South of France, the possibility of Wilfred's falling in love with her younger daughter had never presented itself to the Dowager Countess. There had been a time, many years ago, when Lady Westerham expected young men to fall in love with Lady Esther, as they had previously fallen in love with Lady Eleanor. But the young men—even the ineligible ones—so completely failed to fulfil her lady ship's expectations on this score, that she in time left off cherishing such expectations, the demand for her maternal forethought having ceased to create the supply. She was one of those typical mid-Victorian


matrons who would have considered it worldly to understudy Heaven in the making of good marriages for their daughters, but who, on the other hand, were quite ready to lend a helping hand in the prevention of marriages which were not quite so good.

Her elder daughter's numerous love-affairs had been a source of distress to Lady Westerham, and her younger daughter's lack of love-affairs had pained her none the less keenly. She was one of those absolutely normal mothers who detest equally the men who want to marry their daughters and the men who do not. She disapproved of love-making, she disapproved still more of celibacy, and she disapproved most of all Of a marriage that was not based upon love. But she never called it "love": the word somehow shocked her: she always spoke of it as "affection."

When, however, she and Esther returned from abroad to find, so to speak, the new man in possession—and when the new man showed such obvious admiration for his cousin several times removed—a warm appreciation of the beneficent workings of Providence slowly welled up in Lady Westerham's mind., Being Esther's mother, she did not realize the disparity in years as an outsider would have done: to her, both the Duchess and Lady Esther were still "the girls." Neither did she realize—though she had received many proofs of it—Esther's lack of charm for the opposite sex: she put her daughter's single state down rather to the opposite sex's lack of taste. But she did go to the length of considering Esther a most fortunate young woman in having attracted so eligible a husband, though she regarded Westerham a still more fortunate young man in having secured for Wyvern's End so admirable a successor to herself.

But although Wilfred's love for Esther did not sur-


prise the Countess as much as it surprised other people, Esther's rejection of that lover, which Esther soon confided to her, was more astounding to her mother than to anybody else. The whole family were taken aback at this unlooked-for development; but the Mershires had always recognized that there was "something queer," as they phrased it, in Esther's views of life, and Wilfred—in spite of his being the chief sufferer from it—thoroughly understood Esther's attitude of mind, though he sorely deprecated it. To her mother, however, the culprit was still a helpless and obedient child, whose undeniable obstinacy could not long prevail against parental authority, and whose conscience was still as wax in her elder's hands. And as the days passed on, and Esther was still obdurate in refusing to marry Wilfred, Lady Westerham became very much upset indeed, all the more so as Esther's misery was obviously so overwhelming that the anxious mother began to fear for her child's health.

"But surely, Mamma, you would not like me to do what felt to be wrong," pleaded poor Esther for the hundredth time.

"Certainly not, my love; but there is nothing wrong in getting married: quite the reverse: and especially to such an excellent young man as Wilfred. I am naturally, as your mother, a far better judge of what is right and wrong than you could ever be."

"But if I feel it is wrong, it is wrong to me. I cannot disobey my own conscience."

Of course not, my dear; but I can assure you there is nothing wrong in getting married; your dear father and I would not have done so if there had been; and I feel this would be a most excellent marriage both for you and for Wilfred. I should die quite happy if I


knew that you were settled at Wyvern's End to carry on all my ideas there, and to look after all my poor people. I really should not like to think of any strange young woman being the mistress at Wyvern's End; and Wilfred—nice as he is, and much as I like and respect him—has been brought up among such peculiar people that it was quite within the range of possibility that he might have married some utterly impossible person. And think how terrible that would have been—especially with us living at the Dower House, and therefore obliged to be more or less intimate with her!

Poor Esther groaned. It seemed so impossible to get any of them to see the matter from her point of view. "I wasn't thinking of what was best for me, or for Wyvern's End, or even for you, Mamma: I was only thinking of what was best for Wilfred."

"Well then, I can assure you, my love, that a marriage with you would be the best thing in the world for Wilfred. You are of good family, are intellectual and accomplished, and thoroughly competent to adorn the position and to fulfil the duties of Wilfred's wife. I am not proud, and I trust I know how fleeting is the value of all earthly rank or wealth; but, all the same, I could never bear to see some ill-mannered, low-born young woman succeed to my name and position. I should feel it an insult to your dear father's memory."

"Oh yes, Mamma, I could fill the position right enough: I know all the ropes. I am quite good enough for the peer, but I feel I am not good enough for the man." Esther spoke bitterly, but her irony was entirely lost on her mother.

"But, my dear, you cannot dissociate the two, and to my mind it is rather ill-bred and socialistic to


attempt to do so. It reminds me of a vulgar Scotch song people used to sing when I was a girl, something about a 'guinea-stamp,' and 'a man's a man for a' that.' I never understood the song in the least, or wished to do so; but I remember I used to wonder what 'guinea-stamps' were used for. I should imagine for some official business—probably in a Government office."

Esther fairly wrung her hands. She was so very miserable, and so alone in her misery. "Don't you see, Mamma, I am old and plain, and Wilfred is young and good-looking? I could never make him happy after his first fancy had worn off."

"My dearest child, I totally disagree with you with regard to Wilfred's appearance. He has an intelligent face and always looks a gentleman; but nevertheless he is decidedly plain. I cannot imagine how you can call him good-looking!" Like all quondam beauties, Lady Westerham was very severe in her standard of good looks.

Esther gave up her lover's claim to beauty at once; she had a much more important matter about which to argue. "But you cannot deny that he is young: he is only twenty-eight and I am forty. He will still be young as men go when I am quite an old woman. He will only be fifty-height when I am seventy!"

"Ah, my child! how often must I tell you not to meet trouble before it comes, or to invent dangers so far ahead! We are mercifully not called upon to deal today with the difficulties of thirty years hence. Personally I think it best for a husband and wife to be much the same age, as your dear father and I were; but I have come across equally happy unions where there was a considerable disparity in years."

But Esther stuck to her guns. "I feel it would be


spoiling Wilfred's youth to tie him to an old maid like me, and that it would not be right to do so."

"Young people—and you are still young to me, my dear—are not as good judges of what is right and wrong as their parents are; and I can assure you that there would be nothing wrong in your marrying Wilfred, even if I admit, for the sake of argument, that all your premises are correct. Given that you are an old maid now—which I deny—you would not be one when you were Wilfred's wife: given that you are not young or beautiful, he must have thought you both—or thought you something better than both—or else he would not have formed so deep an attachment to you. It seems to me, my dear, that you are minding Wilfred's business instead of your own, and minding it very badly."

Lady Westerham might not be as clever as her daughters, but she was a great deal more shrewd and sensible than the younger of them. Nevertheless, nothing that she could say shook that daughter's resolution in the very least. The passion for martyrdom—and it is a passion with some people—was strong upon Esther Wyvern; and when once the passion of martyrdom has seized upon a woman, it takes more than wild horses to drag her back from the suttee or the sisterhood or the sacrificial altar, or any other form of self immolation which is prevalent in her particular time and place.

Her mother and her lover were, however, not the only ones who tried to shake Lady Esther's resolution. The Duchess motored over from Stoneham continually, and brought the whole battery of her conversational powers to bear upon her unhappy sister.

"Of course, I see what you mean about being older than Wilfred and all that sort of thing," she urged


on one of the days of the long and hard fought campaign against Lady Esther's conscience; "it would be no good pretending that you were not, because if you did, Time and The Peerage would soon show you up: I mean one of those silly Peerages that tell the women's ages—not Burke, of course. But if Wilfred doesn't mind your age, I can't for the life of me see why you should."

"He doesn't mind it now, but he will some day."

"And you are afraid that then he'll go flirting off after pretty girls? Well, if the worst came to the worst and he does, you'll still be Countess of Westerham at Wyvern's End, which will be much more amusing for you than just being Lady Esther Wyvern at the Dower House."

Esther's pale cheeks flushed with anger. "Oh, Eleanor! how dare you ever suggest such a thing as that I should be afraid of Wilfred's flirting with other women after he was married to me? Such a horrible idea, and one so disloyal to him, never entered my head!"

"Didn't it?" remarked Eleanor dryly. A married woman must be singularly devoid of humour if she derives no amusement from her single sister's ideas as to the thoughts, ways and works of the opposite sex.

"Of course it didn't!" I know him too well. I wasn't thinking of myself at all in the matter: I am certain that, whatever happened, he would always be a perfect husband to me. My point is that I couldn't make him happy, I am so old and plain and dull: even my gratitude to him for loving me could not cure that."

"Certainly it wouldn't, and it would be the most unsuitable remedy to apply! A woman's husband always shares that woman's opinion of herself, and


if she begins by being such a goose as to thank him for marrying her, he'll soon begin to think he's made a pretty bad bargain. Gratitude is not the virtue of a giver; and it is essential to married happiness that the man should believe that he received the blessing, and not that he bestowed it."

The sisters moved along parallel lines, so that there was no hope of their meeting except in infinity. The Duchess was by no means a selfish woman: she would cheerfully have allowed herself to be cut into pieces if she could thereby have benefited her husband and children, though she would have been quite conscious that in so doing she was treating them very well indeed. But the absolute selflessness of Lady Esther—not merely the readiness to sacrifice self, but the complete unconsciousness of such an entity as self—was a thing undreamed of in her Grace's philosophy.

"I can see," Esther continued, regardless of Eleanor's words of wisdom, "that I am involving Wilfred in unhappiness now, but that will pass. He is young, and young people soon get over things: they are not like us. And when he has got over it, he will meet some beautiful girl of his own age, and marry her and be happy ever after."

"And where do you come in?" asked the Duchess, who was really attached to her sister, and did not like to see her suffer.

"I don't come in at all," was the quiet answer; "that's the whole point."

"But you do. It takes two to make a marriage, just as surely as it takes two to make a quarrel. And if you will harp upon the question of age, I think you are most awfully lucky at your age to get such a good chance of settling. A woman of forty is fortunate to get a husband at all; and if you secure not only


a kind heart, but a coronet as well, I must confess that you have brought your simple faith and your Norman blood to the best market."

"Eleanor, I cannot make you understand that it is of Wilfred I am thinking, and not of myself. The love of such a man is the most perfect bliss that I could ever imagine, though his worldly position or possessions do not affect me in the least. It would be an ideal marriage for me, I admit; but what of him? I shall be old before he is even middleaged."

Eleanor shook a warning finger. "Well, be careful: I think you are taking upon yourself an enormous responsibility. Suppose Wilfred does meet this exquisite young thing that you're so full of, and falls in love with her and marries her, which I agree with you is quite on the cards—ten to one she'll be one of the stars of the ballet; and think how dreadful it will be to see a person in pink tights standing in Mamma's shoes!"

"But surely there is a middle course between me and a person in pink tights," expostulated Esther.

"Men on the rebound never take a middle course: and it is such a mercy that Westerham—having just come into money and a title—didn't begin with the pink tights instead of with you. That would have been the natural turn of events, and I think it is greatly to his credit that he didn't take it. As a rule, when collaterals come suddenly into an unexpected title, they are apt to be a little top-heavy at first until they shake down a bit and learn their way about; and that is just the time when the pink tights are dangerous. My opinion is that instead of blaming you in the future for taking advantage of his youth and inexperience by marrying him, as you seem to expect,


Wilfred will rather thank you for having prevented him from marrying somebody infinitely worse."

But though Esther smiled, she remained immovable. "You see, Eleanor," she continued, rather shyly, "it seems rather vulgar to put it into words, but what I feel about Wilfred is this: I am the first woman of our sort that he has ever known at all intimately. I dare say his mother's friends were quite nice and clever and all that; but they were different from us. He thinks that he is attracted by me myself, but he isn't: he is attracted by my manners and my surroundings and the way I have been brought up. I can't express it properly, but you know what I mean."

The Duchess nodded.

"But when he goes about more," Esther went on, "and gets to know the right people, he'll find that all the women are like me, and young and good-looking as well: and then he'll see how foolish he was to mistake the rule for the exception. But I hate to say this, even to you: it sounds so dreadfully snobbish."

"Never mind that; better be snobbish than socialistic any day, and nowadays everybody is either one or the other. It used to be said that every Englishman loved a lord, but now it seems that every Englishman hates a lord: and I'm sure it is much more Christian and well-behaved to love than to hate."

Esther gave a pitiful little smile. "Then I must be a snob, for I certainly love a lord."

"Good for you!" exclaimed her sister, with a merry laugh. "You really would have quite a pretty wit of your own if it weren't so overgrown with conscience. Do you remember that lovely picture by Burne-Jones of the Briar-Rose? Well, your conscience is just like that. It grows and grows till it covers and smothers everything else, even the sleeping


Princess. But your conscience even goes one better than the Briar-Rose: for the Briar did stop at interfering with the Prince; but your conscience has smothered the Prince as well, and stopped him from kissing the Princess and waking her."

Esther's lip quivered. The random shot had gone home. "It didn't quite do that," she murmured; "I only wish it had!"

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