- CHAPTER X A FELT WANT
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A FELT WANT
"I WISH, my love, that you would try to eat a little more," said Lady Westerham, gazing affectionately at her younger daughter across the breakfast-table: "I think it is so important to begin the day with a good breakfast. Your dear father always did so; and I believe it was to this custom that he owed his excellent health."
"I have had quite enough, thank you, Mamma: I'm not at all hungry."
"But you ought to be hungry at your age, my dear," persisted the Countess, in the peculiar tone of voice—rather high-pitched and in a minor key—which she reserved for all who were afflicted or distressed in mind, body or estate. Her daughters called it her "poorly voice."
"I'm really all right; but I never do feel hungry in this hot weather." Lady Esther's face belied her words: anything further from "all right" than her wan face and heavy eyes it would be difficult to imagine. Her cheek had never been "damask" at the best of times: and now that "concealment, like a worm i' the bud," had begun to feed upon it, the consequent "green and yellow melancholy " was apparent to everybody.
"Take an egg, my love: it will do you good," entreated her mother, who was of Mr. Wodehouse's | | 135 classical opinion that "a small egg" could not hurt any one.
Lady Esther obediently took the small egg, which she had not the slightest intention of eating, and began tapping the shell in an absent-minded manner: but she had not progressed far in her work of destruction, before Perkins broke through all custom and precedent by incontinently flinging down the plate of hot toast he was in the act of handing to Lady Esther, and rushing to the window.
When a well-trained servant suddenly lays aside the livery of conventionalism and shows symptoms of a nature as human as our own, the effect is similar to that produced by an outbreak on the part of one of the great forces of Nature—a combination of amazement tinged with awe and tempered by a considerable amount of discomfort: such was the effect produced upon Lady Westerham and her daughter when the excellent Perkins threw down upon the table the plate of hot toast and rushed to the window. He had been their butler for more than thirty years, and never had he treated the buttered toast with such disrespect before! But before their ladyships had time to express their surprise, the culprit himself explained his actions.
"Excuse me, my lady, but I fear there has beers an accident! There's his lordship's new horse galloping about the park with an empty saddle. He is a nasty-tempered brute, but his lordship would try himself to teach him to jump over hurdles at the bottom of the park: and he has evidently been too much for his lordship."
By this time both the ladies were on their feet and at the window. "Run down to the jumps yourself, Perkins," said Lady Westerham, "and see what has | | 136 happened, and take Frederick and Frank with you to help in case of need."
With that avidity for misfortune common to their class, Perkins and his footmen lost no time in obeying Lady Westerham's mandate; and she and her daughter were left gazing through the dining-room window at the park, across which not only Perkins and his followers but also some of the men from Wyvern's End were running, as the riderless horse had been seen from the Hall as well as from the Dower House. Esther's face was as white as a sheet of paper, but her fine breeding stood her in good stead: she neither shrieked nor fainted, but held herself erect, and braced herself to meet with fortitude whatever trouble was in store for her.
"Let us come out on to the terrace," said Lady Westerham, seeing that Esther needed the fresh air to revive her; "we shall see better from there what is going on."
So the two women stood on the terrace and waited, with courage and calmness, for the news which was of such vital importance to them both—to Esther on account of her lover, to Lady Westerham on account of her child.
As she stood with her mother upon the terrace, with the outward self-possession which was a heritage to her from her long line of ancestors, Lady Esther lifted up her soul in a perfect agony of prayer. First, the human part of her cried out to the God who made her that at all costs the life of her lover might be spared: and then the sanctified side of her nature asserted itself, and she earnestly besought that she might have strength to utter from her heart the petition, "Thy Will be done." For Esther Wyvern was one of those saintly yet misguided Christians who believe that sub- | | 137 mission to the Divine Will means merely an unmurmuring acceptance of sorrow, or a patient endurance of suffering: forgetting that the petition runs, "Thy Will be done in earth as it is in heaven"—where there is neither sorrow nor sighing, and where all tears shall be for ever wiped away. So that the perfect fulfilment of the inspired prayer is no meek acquiescence in a painful discipline, but rather a joyous working together for good, on the united parts of God and man. Men and women are apt to forget that when they pray "Thy Will be done," they are not humbly accepting sorrow, but are instead hastening the time when there shall be no more sorrow nor sighing, neither shall there be any more pain. It was by transgression of God's Will that these things came upon mankind; and therefore it is only by submission to His Will that these things—which are contrary to that Will—shall be done away with.
After an eternity of waiting—which in reality lasted about a quarter of an hour—a small procession appeared winding its way across the park and carrying something upon a hurdle.
"You had better go and meet them, my dear, and see what is the matter," said Lady Westerham, who understood her daughter better than that daughter imagined, and who knew that—though meeting trouble half-way may be a foolish thing to do—standing still and watching it coming is sometimes an infinitely more painful one; since action of any kind is always a help to endurance.
Esther flew like an arrow from a bow and met the little procession halfway across the park: and as she flew, her mother in turn lifted up the petition "Thy Will be done," by which she meant—if the meditations of her heart were laid bare—that she, so to speak, | | 138 accorded permission to the Deity to slay Wilfred if He so willed it, though she still hoped that He would on this occasion waive His Divine prerogative, and allow instead her will to be done and Wilfred be permitted to live. That the God, Whom she thus ignorantly worshipped, cared infinitely more for her daughter's happiness than she did herself, and that He never denied His children any good thing, except in order to give them some infinitely better thing in its place, never occurred to her.
Beneath the black waistcoat and stoical demeanour of an ideal butler, Perkins hid a warm and tender heart; so, on perceiving the approach of his young mistress, he detached himself from the little procession and ran to meet her as fast as his large bulk and scanty breath would permit, shouting at the top of his voice, "It's all right, my lady: his lordship's not much hurt!"
On hearing this gospel of good tidings, Esther stood still for a second and lifted up her heart in thanks-giving to the Deity Who—as she believed—had, for this once, allowed her will to be done instead of His: and surely He, Who knoweth whereof His children are made, and remembereth that they are but dust, forgave the misunderstanding of His love which marred her praise for the sake of the gratitude which prompted it.
"It's all right, my lady," Perkins repeated, as he stood still and slowly regained his breath: "the new horse threw his lordship at the big jump, and—"
"And where is he hurt?" Esther interrupted him.
"His lordship's head and back are all right, but we think his leg is broken, so we have sent a man off at once to Grotham for the doctor."
"Is he conscious?"| | 139
"Perfectly, my lady—only a little bit shaken. I'm sure it's a mercy that his lordship fell on his leg and not on his head."
By this time Esther had reached the procession, which halted at her approach; and as she saw the man she adored lying prone upon a hurdle, looking very white and ill, the mother-love, which is an ingredient in the lover-love of all good women, flooded her heart with an overwhelming rush, and she longed to lay the white face upon her breast and cover it with kisses.
On seeing her, the invalid twisted his white lips into an apology for a smile. "I'm all right, Esther," he said; "there's nothing to worry about! That brute of a new horse threw me, and I think he has broken my leg."
"I'm so thankful it is nothing worse, Wilfred," replied Esther, with an equally ineffective smile. "You must get home as quickly as you can and have it set."
Whereupon the procession resumed its way, and Esther went back to the Dower House to relieve the anxiety of her mother. Even when her own heart had been wrung almost to breaking-point, Esther put her mother's anxiety before her own, and did not go to the Hall to hear the doctor's verdict until Lady Westerham's mind had been set at rest.
After that there followed a blissful time for Esther. Perkins's diagnosis proved correct; and the doctor found there was nothing wrong with Lord Westerham but a few bruises and a broken leg. Esther was one of the women who are at their best in a sick-room: she was a born nurse, and a sick-room, unshadowed by a cloud of the slightest' anxiety, was an ideally happy hunting-ground for her. She spent the greater | | 140 part of every day at the Hall, sitting with Wilfred, and reading to him, and talking to him, and writing letters for him, and, in short, making herself indispensable to him. She felt that she was having the time of her life, and she made the very most of it. Although Westerham was not seriously ill, he was too ill to be in the mood for love-making: it was enough for him to feel that Esther was there, and that he loved her and she loved him, but he was not equal to the trouble of putting the thing into words. So they just drifted; and Esther rested in an atmosphere of perfect bliss. Probably if Esther had intended to marry him she would have wanted him to put the thing into words and to talk about it. A woman always wants to put things into words and talk about them, however ill she, or anybody else, may be. To a woman love-making is a medicine which will cure any sickness of soul or body; but to a man it is a wine to quicken pulses and to gladden the heart, but hardly a beverage suited to the sick-room.
Lady Westerham and the Duchess could not conceal their gratification at the turn which events had taken. They argued—and argued rightly—that when it became clear to the ultra-unselfish soul of Esther how extremely uncomfortable illness is in a house where there is no presiding feminine genius, she would see for herself that a new Countess of Westerham was not a luxury but an absolute necessity at Wyvern's End.
Lady Westerham belonged to the generation of mothers who played the part of Providence, so to speak, from the prompter's box, and who never actually appeared upon the stage of their daughters' life-dramas. She would have considered it somewhat indelicate to interfere openly in her children's love- | | 141 affairs, and contented herself with pulling strings which were hidden from the vulgar gaze. But her elder daughter had no such scruples, having outgrown alike the stern Victorian reticence and the rigid Victorian modesty, and was as ready to give advice to her female friends with regard to their future husbands as she was to proffer it later with regard to their future children.
"Mamma's reserve and reticence simply tire me out," she remarked to her sister, in a sudden revolt against the maternal tradition; "I've no use for them. I don't know why she can't say things right out, as I do, instead of humming and hawing and beating about the bush, and making out everything to be quite different from what it really is."
Esther looked shocked, as she always did when the Duchess spoke disrespectfully of the parental training. "Oh, Eleanor, I wish you wouldn't say things like that."
"Why not, if they are true? Of course I'm devoted to Mamma, and think her a splendid woman, but I wish she wouldn't wrap things up so. I should just love to hear what she really thinks and feels about anything or anybody, and not what she believes she ought to think and feel. Now to hear her speak about Papa, for instance; you'd think he'd been the cleverest man and the greatest orator that ever lived; and yet she must have known as well as we did how dull his talk was, and how heavy were his speeches!"
"But, Eleanor, you wouldn't like her to admit it even if she did know it—and especially now that he is dead?"
"Yes I should, and I can't see that being dead makes any difference. If Tammy had been dead for fifty years I should still admit that his anecdotes were | | 142 too long, and that his conduct always erred upon the side of caution. I am very fond of Tammy: I was very fond of Papa; but I think it is ridiculous to try to make out that everybody you are fond of is perfect."
"But I think a wife ought to think her husband perfect," argued Esther, who had responded to her mother's training.
The Duchess fairly groaned. "My dear girl, how terribly unmarried you are! You can't help being single (at least you can, though you won't); but this is carrying the thing to excess. There is nothing funnier in life than the ideas single women have about men. I remember one saying to me once that if she had a husband she should like to feel that to her he was like God: but I told her that if she were married she'd soon know the difference!"
"If I had a husband I don't believe I should see his faults." And there was a tender smile in Esther's grey eyes.
The corresponding smile in her sister's eyes was a very merry one. "Then, my dear girl, you'd be a great goose: but you'd be a still greater one if you tried to cure him of them! I always think a husband's faults are like the spots upon the sun. It is a great pity that they are there: but if you try to remove them you'll only succeed in burning your own fingers. And you'll get a lot of amusement out of them if you take them in the right way, and remember that marriage is a voyage of exploration and not a missionary enterprise. I always say that no married woman need go to the theatre if she wants a comedy: there is always one at her own fireside."
"You see, Papa and Mamma fell in love with each other when they were quite young," remarked Esther wistfully, "and they never changed. I think it must | | 143 be heavenly to marry the first man you ever fell in love with!"
"It may be heavenly, but it certainly isn't earthly, for it's a thing that no earthly woman ever does!"
"Oh, Eleanor, they do! Lots of women marry their first loves."
But the Duchess shook her head. "I beg your pardon, my dear; not they! They may think they do, but they don't. The man you marry is never the man you fell in love with: you can take my word for that. My excellent husband is no more like the Tammy that I fell in love with than he is like the ineligible guardsman or the bulging-eyed curate that I previously fell in love with. Quite a different article, I assure you. When I look at Tammy now, I sometimes almost scream with laughter to remember how at one time I used to think him like King Arthur, with a dash of the Heir of Redclyffe thrown in. I did really! Just as I used to think the curate like Parsifal and Galahad, and the good-looking soldier-boy, that Mamma was so terrified of, a combination of the First Napoleon and Hedley Vicars. And now I've forgotten their very names, so they aren't even names to me: and the Tammy I fell in love with is as much a part of the past as they are, and as unlike his present Grace. You see, the lover and the husband are two separate parts, and can't be played by the same man at the same time, since the one is old-world romance and the other modern comedy."
"I'm sure Mamma never thought Papa modern comedy."
"She wouldn't put it to herself in those words, but she recognized that his speeches were the opposite of modern comedy, which amounts to the same thing. I openly admit that Tammy's speeches are dull: she | | 144 openly denied that Papa's were: which proves that at bottom she and I are fundamentally one. No girl would either affirm or deny the dulness of her lover's speeches, because the possibility of their being anything short of inspired would never remotely occur to her. But, of course, Mamma wouldn't admit now that Papa's speeches were dull: she has harked back to the inspired stage."
"And I commend her for it," persisted the obstinate Esther; "I don't think it is nice to talk about people's faults after they are dead."
"There you go again, just like Mamma! I think you should talk about people who are dead just the same as you do about people who are alive. I can't bear to hear people who are dead always referred to with the prefix 'poor ' or 'dear.' I never said 'dear Papa' when he was alive, so I certainly shan't say it now. You'd be very much surprised if I spoke of 'poor Tammy' now: so why should I begin to do so when he becomes—if the Christian religion be true—infinitely better off then than he is at present?"
"I suppose it sounds more respectful," argued Esther feebly. Her sister's flow of words always upset her arguments if they didn't shake her convictions.
"Respectful fiddlesticks!" retorted the Duchess: and then, with one of those flashes of insight into the deeper things of life with which she now and again astonished those who were accustomed to her irresponsible chatter, she went on: "Besides, I hate anything which seems to deepen the line between those who have passed over and those who are still here. If we believe anything at all, we believe that death is a step onward in our spiritual progress as natural as birth or life; and that those who are what we call dead are really more alive than we are. Then why call | | 145 them 'poor' or 'dear'? To do so is simply to give the lie to one of the principal articles of our faith. For my part, I think it is as unchristian to alter your voice and manner when you go into a house where anybody has just died, as it would be to do so when you go into a house where any one has just been born; and I've no patience with it!"
Esther looked thoughtful. "I quite agree that there is something in what you say," she admitted.
"Of course there is; and that something is the truth. If you believe a theory, behave as if you believe it, or else you'll never convince anybody that it is true. And that reminds me that neither birth nor death but marriage is what I am thinking about and attending to at present: for this leg-breaking business of poor Wilfred's (I don't mind saying 'poor' about the unmarried though I do about the dead) shows me more plainly than ever how absolutely necessary it is for him to have a wife to look after him."
Esther's face grew pale with anxiety. "Oh, Eleanor! you don't think he is neglected, do you?"
"Of course I do," replied the diplomatist; "every unmarried man is neglected when he is ill. And Wilfred worse than most, as he hasn't even a mother or a sister to fall back upon. Poor understudies for a wife, I admit; but better than housekeepers or valets."
"I do not think his leg is mending as quickly as it ought," said Esther, with an anxious sigh; "do you think it is?"
"I haven't an idea how long a broken leg takes to mend. I know a broken heart takes about three weeks in town and five in the country; but Mamma never broke my leg in her maternal anxiety to deliver me out of the snare of impecunious suitors, so I've no | | 146 data to go upon. But one thing I'm sure about, and that is that a bachelor's leg will never mend as quickly as a married man's, because it isn't so well looked after."
"I sometimes think it might be wise for him to consult a specialist," proceeded Esther, her face still drawn with anxiety on the invalid's account.
But her? the Duchess was firm. "Certainly not: I have no opinion of specialists. I divide them into two classes—those that do you no good, and those that do you positive harm. If you want a doctor at all, give me what is called a general practitioner, with no fads and plenty of sense and a cheerful way of looking at things. I can't bear depressing doctors—those with what I call 'a good graveside manner.' But what Wilfred wants is a wife—not a doctor—and I hope he'll get one before long. After this illness, you must see for yourself how necessary a wife is."
Esther did see for herself: and her seeing eventually bore fruit.
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