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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"LET US go over to tea at the Dower House," said Lord Westerham to his wife one summer's afternoon after the London season had ended and the fashionable world had gone back to the land.

"Certainly," said Beryl, springing up from her deck chair on the lawn, where she was endeavouring to drown ennui in one of the latest novels. She was always ready to embrace any opportunity of eluding a tête-à-tête with her lord and master. Since lunch he had been closeted with his agent in his own business-room, engaged on affairs of the estate, and so had given her a short holiday from his conversation and caresses; but now he was let loose again she was only too thankful to dilute his society with that of her aunt and cousin.

She picked up her garden hat, which was lying on the grass beside her chair, and put it on her golden curls with the carelessness of assured beauty: she was one of those rare women who are lovely enough to regard a looking-glass as a luxury rather than a necessity. To most women it is the exact opposite: "Pleasure to have it none, to lose it pain," as Lancelot remarked about something quite different, but the principle is the same. The majority of women do net look in the glass so much to give pleasure to themselves as to avoid giving pain to others by a vision | | 222 of untidy hair and crooked head-gear. The woman who can put on or take off her hat without unconsciously praying for the aid of a looking-glass, is either absolutely beautiful or hopelessly plain: she has abundantly realized her feminine desire to look well, or else has finally renounced it. Young Lady Westerham did not even administer a pat to her curls after crushing them down under her large straw hat: she knew that they were beyond all praise or patting, and that no effort of hers could enhance their golden glory. So she wisely forbore to make any.

"I always love to go to the Dower House," remarked Westerham, as they strolled across the lawns on their way to the park. "I delight in the atmosphere of the place, it is so restful."

His wife shook her pretty head. "I don't agree with you about the atmosphere. I always think Aunt Cecilia keeps the rooms too cold. She'd consider it somehow more religious to sit in a cold room than in a warm one."

"I didn't mean the physical atmosphere, darling," Wilfred gently explained.

"Then what did. you mean? I always thought atmosphere meant hotness or coldness."

"So it does in one sense; but I was referring to the mental atmosphere. Don't you know that there is a mental atmosphere which warms or chills your mind and soul just as a physical atmosphere warms or chills your body?"

Beryl sighed to herself. Here he was, at it again as fresh as ever! It was all very well for Tamford to say in his boyish slang that there was "nothing to write home about " in Wilfred's manner of conversation; but Tamford didn't have to listen to it hour after hour and day after day as she did!

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"I don't a bit understand what you are driving at," she repeated doggedly.

"Don't you feel the minute you enter a house that the place is congenial or uncongenial to you, before a word has been spoken."

"Of course, if the furniture is shabby and the wallpapers are dirty I feel I am going to hate it," Beryl admitted.

"I don't mean that in the very least. Don't you feel something intangible—quite apart from the furniture or the wall-papers or anything visible—which either attracts your mind or repels it as the case may be? Something that you can't explain?"

"If you can feel it, why can't you explain it? I can always explain everything I feel."

"I can explain it to people who would understand my explanation. It is the same sort of sensation to your mind as cold or heat is to your body: something which affects your subconscious rather than your conscious self."

Beryl remembered Tamford's advice to "play up" to her husband when he chose to "spread himself," and she manfully struggled to follow it. "You mean the difference in your feelings when you are with people you like, and when you are with people you don't like: of course, I understand that right enough."

Westerham likewise was very patient and persevering. "No, that isn't exactly what I mean, though it is akin to it. What I mean is that people create a mental atmosphere which pervades their houses even when they themselves are not present; and which other people, who are sensitive to such impressions, recognize and are influenced by instantly. Lady Westerham and Esther are such restful people that they have | | 224 impregnated their house with an atmosphere of rest; and their house retains this atmosphere even when they themselves are not in it."

"Oh, Westerham, what an absurd idea! As if houses and rooms could be affected by the character of the people who live in them! You'll be saying next that our dinner-table is selfish, or that our drawing-room chairs are frivolous, or that the umbrella-stand in the hall is addicted to drinking; and then the next stage will be that you'll want all the furniture to go to church on Sundays, and sit in the servants' pew. It will be awfully inconvenient when it is the dining-room table's Sunday out; or if the stair-carpet wishes to attend Sunday-school!" And Beryl laughed at her own quaint conceit.

Westerham laughed too, but half-heartedly: a joke out of season is as bad as a pheasant in September. "Spiritual things must be spiritually apprehended," he said somewhat sententiously.

"I never heard such a silly idea," continued Beryl, still laughing. "I should think it is quite original, and understood by no one but yourself."

"Not a bit of it: the Duchess understands it perfectly, and of course Esther does."

Beryl shook her head. "Cousin Esther would pretend she did even if she didn't, she is so kind and sympathetic: but I'm sure Cousin Eleanor is far too sensible to understand anything so silly."

"Indeed she isn't. She told me herself that she was a different woman in each of her different houses because their respective atmospheres affected her differently; she said she was worldly at Mershire House, romantic in Scotland, sensible at Tamford, and religious at Stoneham Abbey."

Beryl again demurred. "Cousin Eleanor isn't what | | 225 I call a religious woman: she dresses too well, and is too merry and cheerful."

"I think you do both Religion and Eleanor an injustice," replied Westerham dryly.

But his wife was pursuing her own train of thought. "Cousin Eleanor doesn't like me: she never has done."

Wilfred's marital loyalty was at once up in arms. "What nonsense, my darling! She must like you! Nobody could help liking anybody as beautiful as you are!"

But Beryl knew considerably better than that. "Couldn't they, though? Ninety-nine women out of every hundred could—and would—you bet! "And she laughed contentedly to herself. "But Cousin Eleanor isn't like that," she added judicially; "she isn't a bit the sort of woman to hate another woman because she is better looking than she is. Cousin Eleanor is awfully straight, and there's never anything mean about her. You should just hear Jocko talk about his mother: he thinks there's nobody like her!"

"And quite right of him! There never is anybody like one's mother. I wish you could have known my mother, Beryl; I should have loved her to kiss you once before she died." And Westerham's voice broke so that he could not go on.

But his wife did not notice the break, neither did she feel the slightest regret at having missed the acquaintance of the late Mrs. Wyvern. She had no patience with filial sentiment. It slightly bored her even when the admirable Tamford dwelt too long upon the perfections of his maternal parent; but then, she felt, he had the excuse of his mother being a duchess.

"I dare say we shouldn't have got on together," she coldly replied; "people hardly ever get on with | | 226 their mothers-in-law. It's a tiresome sort of relationship, I think."

Westerham winced as if he had been struck. Whenever he spoke of his mother he felt that he was standing upon holy ground; and Beryl's heartless comment was to him sacrilege. Therefore—as his wife expressed it to herself—he "dried up" until they reached the Dower House, and found the Dowager Countess and her two daughters having tea upon the lawn.

The former welcomed them with a warmth which in one usually so stately almost amounted to effusion. Like all old people she had learnt to submit to the inevitable—not a difficult lesson to a woman of her placid temperament—and as her daughter had declined to reign in her stead at Wyvern's End, there was no one whom she would sooner see there than her niece. Beryl made a strong appeal both to the Dowager's sense of beauty and to her instinct of kinship—two very powerful factors in the government of her ladyship's impulses—and the young woman's youth and beauty were a constant delight to her aunt's tired old eyes.

Esther's face likewise quickened into real pleasure as Westerham and his bride opened the gate which led from the park to the lawn. The pain of seeing the two together, having no selfishness or jealousy to batten upon, had almost faded out of existence; and in its stead she was beginning once more to experience the joy of constant communion with a spirit so finely attuned to her own as was Wilfred's. By losing her life she had found it, and she was gradually realizing that a friendship approved by her conscience brought her truer and more abiding joy than a love which that same conscience declined to tolerate.

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There are some moral palates that have a marked inclination towards the taste of forbidden fruit: there are others for whom the fact that it is forbidden robs the fruit of all its flavour. Esther Wyvern belonged to the latter class: and herein both her mother and her sister misunderstood the nature of her sacrifice. It was not so much that she renounced her own happiness because she did not think it right to accept it, as that it ceased to be happiness when she ceased to consider it right. Hers was one of those rare souls that love righteousness and hate iniquity by instinct: therefore the oil of gladness was bound to be her portion either in this world or in the world to come.

But whilst the Dowager and Lady Esther greeted their visitors with a smile of sincere welcome, no such illumination transfigured the countenance of the Duchess. She had never liked Beryl: she liked her still less now that the girl had appropriated to herself Esther's heart's desire, and the Duchess was far too great a lady to pretend anything which she did not feel. Although, to the casual observer, she was far more agreeable and easygoing and what is called "affable" than were her mother and sister, underneath all her charm and ease and affability there was a hard spot in her Grace's character which had no counter-part in the gentle natures of the other two. People who were frightened of Lady Westerham and Lady Esther, professed themselves "quite at home" with the Duchess; yet—had they known the truth—the Duchess was really the one to be frightened of. A relation of theirs once said that Lady Westerham and Esther were like nuts—a hard shell with a sweet kernel inside; while Eleanor was like a peach—soft outside and hard in the middle. And that relation was not far wrong. The Duchess had no patience at all with | | 228 what she called "silliness"; on the other hand, Lady Westerham and Esther were very tolerant of this quality in the young and good-looking—though probably they called it by some other name. The Duchess did not really like young people (with the exception of her own children), although she delighted and charmed them: Lady Westerham and Esther really did like them, although their ladyships frightened them to death. Now Beryl had a strong strain of so-called "silliness," which her fond aunt and unmarried cousin called "freshness and simplicity," and' found altogether charming: the Duchess, on the contrary, could not tolerate the quality, and longed to box its possessor's ears every time it was displayed. Lady Westerham always described Beryl as "a sweet young creature"; the Duchess spoke of her as "a little minx."

When greetings had been exchanged and chairs provided and tea dispensed, the Duchess remarked: "You'll have to send for some fresh tea, Esther: the present supply has outlived its reputation and will get on Westerham and Beryl's nerves."

Her mother demurred. "It hasn't been made long, Eleanor. I don't think Perkins will like to make fresh tea again so soon."

"Oh, Mamma, how you do spoil your servants! I'm sure you've ruined many a caller's digestion by dosing them with neat tannin rather than hurt poor old Perkins's feelings by ordering fresh tea."

Lady Westerham looked grieved. It was agony to her to feel that she had hurt even a hair on a fellow-creature's head. "Oh! my love, I trust you are mistaken. I could not bear to think that any one was the worse for having partaken of my hospitality."

But the Duchess was enjoying her mother's discom- | | 229 fiture and had no mercy. "That is the great responsibility of entertaining other people," she continued; "the man who dines with you puts his digestion for the time being into the hollow of your hand, just as the man who loves you puts his heart for the time being into the hollow of your hand: and it is just as bad to ruin a man's digestion as it is to break his heart. Worse, really, because they mind it so much more."

"The tea is quite all right, Lady Westerham," said Wilfred manfully, coming to the rescue and gulping down a cup; "isn't it, Beryl?"

But Beryl was one of those people who think a great deal about what they eat and drink. "I agree with Cousin Eleanor that it is getting too strong; and cold as well," she added as an afterthought.

"Greedy little wretch!" said the Duchess to herself, regardless of the fact that it was she who had started the hare which Beryl had caught and cooked. The fact that Beryl was only following her lead, in no way lessened her Grace's condemnation of her young cousin.

"Then, of course, Esther, we must send for some fresh tea at once. Perhaps Wilfred will not mind our troubling him to ring the drawing-room bell."

Wilfred did not mind his trouble at all; but he could not help wishing that his wife had backed him up in his effort to save trouble to other people. But he had yet to learn that it was not Beryl's way to consider other people when her own comfort was concerned. When he returned from his bell-ringing he found the Duchess still rattling on in her usual inconsequent manner—

"Do you remember years ago, before I was married, Esther, when you and I used to pour out tea for | | 230 Mamma's callers in Eaton Square, how when nobody was looking I used to put my little finger in the tea-pot to feel if the tea was hot enough for the next comer?"

The Duchess and Esther laughed at the recollection, but their mother looked shocked, as indeed she was. "You put your finger in the teapot, Eleanor? I never heard of such an improper trick! I should have forbidden it at once had I known of it."

"Of course you would," retorted the merry offender; "and that is why you never did hear of it: Esther and I saw to that."

Lady Westerham could not get over the revelation at all. "I never heard of such a thing," she repeated; "and in my house, too!"

"And in your teapot, too!" ejaculated the Duchess, who was enjoying herself immensely. "But all the same, Mamma, it was not half so bad as giving the people tea that had stood too long. My little finger couldn't injure their digestions, and tannin could. It was a dear little finger and quite a pretty little finger in those days: but now, alas, like the tea if has stood too long!" And her Grace looked down at her plump hands with a sigh.

"And like the tea it has grown strong with standing," added Lord Westerham; "for now it is strong enough for you to twist the Duke round it."

"Good for you!" retorted the Duchess.

"I think that Beryl is looking very tired," said Esther, as usual intent on the sufferings of others. "Do you feel the heat very much, Beryl?" she added, turning to her cousin.

"I do feel rather tired, but I don't think it is the heat," replied Beryl: and she had the grace not to add what she was thinking, namely, that she was not tired, | | 231 but bored; and not with the heat, but with her husband. "In fact, it seems quite cool here after town."

"I expect you did too much in town, and now are feeling the consequences, my dear," said her aunt. "I cannot say that I approve of too much gaiety for young people—especially in such heated and crowded rooms. I never think that Eleanor looks so well after the London season as she does before."

"Thank you for classing me among the young people, Mamma: it is most gratifying, and does me a world of good."

"You always seem young to me, my love," replied. Lady Westerham simply. "I suppose that you and Esther will really soon approach middle age; but to me you will always be girls—or, rather, children."

"Soon approach middle age!" repeated the Duchess; "what a sweet way of putting it! I'm sorry to say, however, that my approach shot for middle age is already played, and that I shall shortly be holed out and ready to hit off for the next hole called Elderly."

"I beg leave to contradict the statement of my noble friend," exclaimed Westerham. "I maintain that age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite variety."

"Perhaps not," remarked the Duchess; "but it can stiffen her joints and increase her weight—and it will do so if you will only give it time."

"Precisely," retorted his lordship; "that is my whole point: it will require a great deal of time before it can accomplish a consummation so devoutly to be prayed against."

And so the conversation drifted on in that easy and irresponsible manner only possible among people who | | 232 are very intimate with each other, until it was time for the Duchess and the Westerhams to repair to their respective homes.

One day not long after this—as Wilfred was walking up the avenue that led from the village to Wyvern's End—he met the doctor coming down from the Hall, and stopped to speak to him.

"Nobody ill up at my place, I hope?" he said, after they had congratulated themselves and each other on the beauty of the weather.

"No, no, Lord Westerham, certainly not; quite the reverse, if I may say so." And Dr. Taylor rubbed his hands together with pleasure. "I have only just been up to Wyvern's End to see her ladyship."

Wilfred started. His love for Beryl fired his anxiety at once. "What is the matter with Lady Westerham? She seemed all right when I went out this morning."

"And so she is—as right as a trivet: your lordship need have no anxiety on that score. Lady Westerham only wanted me to assure her that a certain suspicion she had formed was a correct one, and that I have been able to do with the greatest pleasure in the world. I cannot tell you, Lord Westerham, what a joy it is to me—who have lived at Wyvern all my life, and my father before me—to know that the title is not going to die out, but will descend in the direct line this time. And as for her ladyship, she is splendidly well and strong, and I am sure you need have no anxiety on her account whatsoever. I congratulate you heartily, my lord: it is the best bit of news I have heard for many a long day! "And the worthy man's eyes were filled with tears of joy as he grasped Wilfred's hand in the exuberance of his delight.

Westerham thanked him civilly and then hurried | | 233 on longing to be alone in what he felt was one of the supreme moments of his life. It would be impossible to put into words the effect upon Wilfred of Dr. Taylor's information. He was one of the few people who have learned that it is the simple events of life that are stupendous—the commonplace things that are cosmic. The fact that he was to become a father seemed in some inexplicable way to make him an integral part of the universe as a whole—a link in that indissoluble chain which holds the centuries together, and will hold them until Time shall be no more. He was no longer a mere individual man: he was Mankind—an essential part of Humanity itself. Until now he had thought of himself as Wilfred Wyvern—the Wilfred Wyvern who had toiled as a journalist and succeeded to a peerage; and who had loved and lost Esther Wyvern, and had wooed and won Beryl Delaney. But suddenly he realized that he was something greater than any individual worker, or lover, or landowner—he was Man: Man who was made in the image of God, and whose nature God took upon Himself. And as Man he was not only one with God, he was also one with Nature—with that universal Mother who never fails to fulfil the promise of the first rainbow, and to bring round the seasons in their turn, so that summer and winter, seed-time and harvest, shall not cease upon the earth. For the moment his individuality dropped from him like a cast-off garment, and he tasted of the ineffable glory of being one with the Universe. He took his part in the chorus of the constellations, and felt the little hills rejoice on every side; before him the valleys broke forth into singing, and all the trees of the field clapped their hands.

But this ecstasy of exaltation in his oneness with | | 234 Nature was soon succeeded by a more tender and less impersonal mood. His whole being was overwhelmed with a flood of passionate tenderness for his wife—for the woman who had placed upon his brow the crown of his manhood, and by the chrism of whose suffering he was to be anointed a king among men. It was to her that he owed this happiness that was coming to him: her hand held the key that would admit him into his kingdom. To Wilfred—as to all true men—the most sacred thing in the universe, next to Godhead, was Motherhood; and as he thought of Beryl as a mother, his love for her was transfigured into worship; for to him she suddenly represented the Motherhood of the world.

When the man who was made in God's image was bidden to name the wife whom God had given to him, he called her by no angel title nor by any name descriptive of human beauty: he called her name Eve, because she was the mother of all living—even Eden could suggest no sweeter name for womanhood than the name of Mother.

All these thoughts rushed one after the other through Wilfred's mind as he hurried homewards and hastened to prostrate himself in spirit at the feet of the woman whom he fervently adored: the woman who was henceforward to be holy to him as the mother of his child.

He found her in her boudoir; and for a moment he was tongue-tied by the intensity of his emotion, and found it almost impossible to speak. But the instant Beryl saw his face she knew that he shared her secret, and her spirit rose up in fierce rebellion against the joy that she read there.

He knelt down beside her chair and tried to put his arms around her. "My darling,"he whispered | | 235 in broken accents, "let us thank God—together—for the glorious happiness He has sent us!"

But she shook him off. "Oh, Westerham, for Heaven's sake don't begin all that sickly sentimentality when everything is so horrid! I can't bear it! ' Glorious happiness ' indeed! I call it the most hateful and detestable nuisance I ever came across. Now I shan't be able to hunt all next winter, or wear any of my new dresses at the county balls: and instead of being sorry for me you begin all that sentimental rot about ' glorious happiness.'It's more than I can stand—it really is!" And she burst into a flood of angry tears.

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