- CHAPTER V DRIFTING
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THE next year or two passed swiftly and (on the surface) smoothly, with no particular happenings to act as fingerposts to show the travellers on what road they were travelling, and how far they had progressed. During the uneventful periods of life there is nothing to tell us the name of the way which we are treading, nor the goal to which it will eventually lead; but now and again something occurs which—like an outstretched signpost—suddenly shows us unwary wayfarers that we unwittingly left the highway to Zion some time ago, and are now speeding towards some very different and highly undesirable bourne. We thought we were getting along splendidly, with nothing to mar our comfort or interfere with our progress: and so we were; but it was along the way that leadeth to destruction, and the end whereof is death. We did not turn from the right road intentionally—or even consciously: we cannot even remember the point of divergence; we fondly imagined that we were still going along the road on which we started. But suddenly we come across a fingerpost—some unsuspected event happens which shows us clearly where we are—and we are dumbfoundered at what we learn. Then there is nothing for us but to retrace our steps until we come back again to the King's highway; and the further we have travelled along the wrong | | 256 road, the harder and more difficult will that retracing prove.
During this period of apparent inaction, young Lady Westerham had pursued her course of pleasure unchecked. Her health was perfect; her beauty, if possible, more dazzling than it had been before. And because she was well and happy—and particularly because she was not in love with her husband—that husband found her extremely easy to live with. It is one of the ironies of life that strong feeling frequently interferes with agreeable intercourse. The more we care, the less we can connive: the more we mind about things, the less we can manage them. It is likewise one of the compensations of life that toleration is in inverse proportion to devotion. The less we love people, the less we expect of them, and the less we care when they fall short of our expectations—which is, after all, only another rendering of the truth that of those to whom little is given, little shall be required.
Therefore Beryl proved a most easy wife to Lord Westerham. She never interfered with his pleasures, because she never felt the slightest interest in them; she never attempted to curtail his liberty, because she did not care in the least where he went or what he did; and she made no demands whatsoever upon his affection, because she did not want to be bothered with his affection at all. The less she saw of him the better she was pleased; but when she did see him, she bore in mind how much she owed to him, and how much he had added to her enjoyment of life, and she was accordingly grateful and pleasant. In spite of the admiration which she could not avoid exciting, Beryl never flirted—not because she loved Wilfred more, but other men less. As long as these others admired her from a distance she was well content with their admiration; | | 257 but the minute they showed signs of any warmer feeling she became horribly bored. Love was a thing for which she had no use: it simply tired her. To the eyes of the world she was a model wife; and so she really was, in the letter. It was only in the spirit that she fell so far short of ideal wifehood.
And to the eyes of the world Beryl was also a model mother. She sent for her baby—when she remembered him—down to the drawing-room, and showed him off to anybody who cared to see him, making an exquisite picture with him in her arms: and her friends all said of her what a sensible mother she was in never boring other people by talking about her child—which most certainly she never did!
Her husband was perhaps quieter than he used to De, and less full of ideas and theories. But he was what the world counted a happy man, and he certainly had every obvious reason for contentment.
These two years had dealt very lightly with Cecilia, Lady Westerham. She had come to that restful time of life when her world consisted of her family and her garden, and when the peace of God lay all around her in the fading light of her eventide. She had known joy and sorrow in her time; but now the toils and the pleasures of her day were over, and she was patiently awaiting the coming of that short night which should herald the dawn of the everlasting morning.
The Duchess, too, was much the same as she had been two years ago: just as merry and just as sensible; but with perhaps a shade more of tenderness in her mirth, and a touch more of sentiment in her commonsense.
Lady Esther alone had changed—or, rather, Lady Esther and Lord Winfieldale. The latter had developed from a wizened and wrinkled baby into the most | | 258 lovely child imaginable, with his mother's beauty and the promise of his father's brains: and Esther had blossomed into an ideal of vicarious motherhood. As far as she was concerned, little Win had altered the whole complexion of life. As Wilfred had awakened the woman in her, so Wilfred's son had awakened the mother in her; and she found the latter passion as absorbing as she had found the former. Only with this difference: that while, in the one instance, her conscience had bidden her stand on one side in order that Beryl might seize the happiness that might have been hers, so, in the other, that same conscience urged her to seize upon and fulfil the duty that Beryl so disgracefully neglected and ignored.
In the interests of both the child's health and his mother's pleasure, it was found best for the boy to spend most of his time at Wyvern's End, whilst Lord and Lady Westerham were in London, or abroad, or staying with their many friends and acquaintances; and Lady Esther loved him and looked after him and watched over him to her heart's content, assisted by his devoted "Nannie." It was Esther who guided his wavering footsteps when first he essayed to toddle; it was Esther who instructed him in his earliest attempts at rational conversation. In return for her adoration, he gave her the warmest affection of his baby heart: and surely there is nothing so delicately flattering to the best side of our natures—nothing so completely gratifying to our noblest and purest selfrespect—as the love of a little child. So Esther, for the first time in her life, was peacefully and profoundly content. She had found her place in the world, and had filled it: and what woman can ask more of life than that?
Not only did she derive absolute happiness from | | 259 the constant companionship of Wilfred's son—she also incidentally experienced a considerable amount of pleasure from the society of Wilfred's self; for Lord Westerham frequently ran down to Wyvern's End for a few days to see the child whom he adored, and with whom his beautiful young wife could not be bothered.
Esther found Wilfred's friendship more satisfying than she had ever found his love: his comradeship was far more to her taste than his caresses. Perhaps it was a question of age—it certainly was a question of temperament—but the ecstasy of passion had not, so to speak, suited Lady Esther. She had found it too exciting, too overpowering: even before her conscience began meddling in the matter at all, her loveaffair had proved too exhausting for her. It intoxicated her with bliss, but it never made her really happy.
But this present state of things made her happy beyond all expression. To see Wilfred frequently—to enjoy the intellectual side of his character—to share in his interests and to be supported by his sympathy—above all, to feel that in her devotion to his child she was serving him and helping him to the utmost of her power—these things filled her cup to overflowing.
The absolutely unselfish nature never blossoms fully in the heat of passion; for passion in its very essence is a selfish thing. It would not be true to itself if it were not. What man or woman would like to feel that they had been sought in marriage from unselfish motives? The best lovers must always have a strong strain of self in them: otherwise their love is lacking in its essential quality. But in every other relation of life—and most especially in the maternal relation | | 260 —unselfishness is a perfect and a precious thing. Therefore absolutely selfless women, such as Esther Wyvern, are far happier in family life than in the ecstasies of love-making. They have their romance, it is true—plenty of it; but it is a mystical exaltation, more suited to the realms of dreamland than to the exigencies of the ordinary love-affair. Thus in her devotion to Winfieldale, Esther's nature attained its highest development: and its fulfilment was hardly less perfect in her absolutely pure and unselfish friendship for Winfieldale's father.
It was when the boy was about two years old that Lord Westerham received one morning a somewhat disquieting letter from Lady Esther, and communicated its contents to his wife. Unlike most women of fashion, Beryl never breakfasted in her own room. Her splendid health and abundant energy rebelled against a custom which savoured, if not of invalidism, at any rate of indolence. So she always had breakfast downstairs with her husband, thereby adding another item to her list of qualifications as a model wife. That she did it to please herself and not to please her husband, was a fact of no moment in a world where actions are measured according to their results and not according to their motives. In that other world, where attempt counts for more than attainment, and where deserts are regulated by desires rather than by deeds, young Lady Westerham's account was perhaps not so satisfactory. We are all compelled to go in for the principle of "Double Entry" in Life's accountbook: and it is a disquieting thought that when the final day of reckoning arrives, we shall find that earth's cash-book and heaven's ledger rarely tally.
"Esther says that Win is not well," said Westerham, tossing Esther's letter to his wife; "his throat | | 261 has been sore for days, and Taylor can't understand why it doesn't yield to remedies."
Lady Westerham skimmed the letter in her graceful, careless way. "Oh, I don't expect there is much the matter!" she said when she had finished; "children are often seedy with trifling ailments, and Cousin Esther is always absurdly fussy about Winfieldale."
But her ladyship's cheering words did not dispel the cloud on her husband's brow. "And the boy has a temperature, too, you see, which Taylor can't get down to normal."
Beryl shrugged her shoulders. "That's nothing! Children are always having temperatures. They are often over a hundred at night, and then down to normal again in the morning."
"But I gather from Esther's letter that both she and the doctor are anxious."
"Then it is very silly of them! But Esther is getting an awfully stuffy old maid, and Dr. Taylor isn't much better. And they really are absurd about that child! Every time the poor little beggar sneezes they hold a consultation over him, and talk about him until, in their imagination, the sneeze has assumed the dimensions of an earthquake." Beryl had long ago ceased to cherish any scruples about criticizing Esther.
"And you see," said Lord Westerham, with a catch in his breath that showed how he hated to put the thing into words, although experience had taught him that unless a thing was put into words his wife was incapable of perceiving it, "they say there are cases of diphtheria in the village."
"That would only be among the poor people, and I'm sure Nannie would have the sense never to take Win into any of the cottages—though Esther might. Cousin Esther is so fond of visiting the poor, and I | | 262 think it is such a foolish habit, as they are generally infectious; and if they aren't infectious they're sure to be dirty."
"I am sure that Esther would never take Win anywhere that there was the least fear of infection," replied Wilfred, with the stern expression that any criticisms of Esther always brought to his face. "Esther is an extremely sensible woman, and in addition to that she is simply wrapped up in the boy."
Beryl smiled good-humouredly. "I know all that: and that is why I feel quite sure you needn't worry about the diphtheria. Charitable as Cousin Esther is, her charity only begins where Winfieldale's comfort leaves off. You may bet your last shilling on that!"
"Don't you think you could run down with me in the car this morning, and let us see for ourselves how the boy is? We should get back again in time for dinner." Westerham made the proposition somewhat timidly.
"Certainly not. What a ridiculous suggestion! Why, I've got to go to the dressmaker's this morning, and then I'm due at a luncheon, and a bridge-party after that. I couldn't possibly motor down to Wyvern's End and back to-day. It is out of the question."
There was a pathetic look in Lord Westerham's eyes—a look that one sees sometimes in the eyes of a dog when the creature is trying, in its dumb way, to mitigate the omnipotence of its master. "Couldn't you put off your engagements just this once? It would only be the dressmaker and luncheon and the bridge-party. We shall be back in plenty of time for the Silverhamptons' dinner and Lady Kesterton's ball afterwards."| | 263
Beryl smiled at him good-humouredly. "No, Westerham, I couldn't possibly put off anything: and there is no earthly reason why I should. If old Taylor isn't competent to prescribe a gargle for Win, let him send for a doctor from town who is!"
"Oh, Beryl, please come with me—just this once! Just to please me, and to set our minds at rest."
Beryl's pleasantness was still unruffled. One of her most marked qualifications as a model wife was her imperturbably good temper. "I can set our minds at rest all right, without motoring seventy miles for the purpose," she replied, with a laugh; "mine is at rest already. You may take my word for it that there's nothing much the matter with Win."
"But I can't take your word for it, Beryl, until we have seen the child! If, after we have seen him and interviewed Taylor, you can give me your word there's nothing much the matter with the boy, then you'll set my mind at rest."
Lady Westerham once more shrugged her shoulders. "Then your mind won't be set at rest at all: you'll have to put up with it as it is."
"Won't you come, Beryl? If you won't come for the boy's sake, won't you because I ask you? I so rarely ask you to do anything for me!" There was an appeal in Lord Westerham's eyes and a tremor in his voice that would have touched the heart of ninetynine women out of a hundred. But his wife happened to be the hundredth.
"And a very good thing you don't, Westerham, if they are such absurd and tiresome things as this!" she retorted, with her rippling laugh. "Surely Esther and Nannie and old Taylor are competent to concoct a gargle or to administer a lozenge between them! And if they aren't, let them get some big-wig down | | 264 from town to do so. I'm sure I shan't grudge the money, if it is any satisfaction to you." It did not occur to her ladyship that it was her husband's money that she did not grudge; nor—to do him justice—did it occur to Westerham.
"Then if you can't go, I must go by myself," he said, getting up from the table to ring the bell.
Beryl raised her pencilled eyebrows. "But I thought you said you had a committee on at the House of Lords to-day?"
"So I have; but that and everything else must give way to the boy," replied Westerham. Then to the footman who had answered the bell, he said: "Tell them to bring round the big touring-car at once. I am going down to Wyvern's End."
"But I thought you said it was a very important committee—one that you were particularly interested in," persisted Beryl, as the footman withdrew.
"So it is. But I must give it up, even if you won't give up your dressmaker and your parties!" Westerham tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice, but failed. Not that it mattered, however, for the bitterness was utterly lost upon Beryl. She never saw what she did not wish to see, her "inward eye" being thus comfortably constituted.
"Well, I can't possibly give up those, as I have told you," she repeated, with unruffled good humour. "And if you aren't back in time I shall go on to the Silverhamptons' without you," she added, as Westerham rose from the table and walked towards the door.
He stopped suddenly as if he had been shot. "Do you mean to say that you won't stay to hear how the boy is?" he asked, wheeling round and staring at her in amazement.
But she did not even look at him as she carelessly | | 265 answered, "Of course not; why should I? You know how it always annoys Lord Silverhampton if people come late to his dinners; and I don't see why I should spoil his temper and Lady Silverhampton's dinner because you and Cousin Esther happen to be a couple of old maids."
Without another word Lord Westerham turned on his heel and strode out of the room. But he banged the door after him.
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