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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WHEN Westerham arrived at Wyvern's End, he found Esther already there, and found her in a very anxious state of mind. The doctor had been and had pronounced the case to be diphtheria, and, moreover, a very sharp attack. He had administered anti-toxin and was doing everything he could; and Esther had already telegraphed to the London hospital for two nurses to assist herself and Nannie in looking after the little invalid. She had established herself and her maid at Wyvern's End, so as to be on the spot the whole time; and the Dowager Countess had willingly spared her daughter for such a cause.

When Wilfred suggested to Esther the danger of infection to which she was thus exposing herself, she simply laughed him to scorn. And he knew as well as she did that no thought of possible danger could ever separate her from the little child whom she loved so devotedly.

They neither of them mentioned Beryl's name at all. Westerham was one of the many men, and Esther was one of the few women, who can hold their tongues when necessary; and life had taught them both the lesson that there are many things which are intolerable only when put into words.

They spent an unhappy day together, each trying to buoy up the other with the expression of hopes that neither of them really felt; and speaking words of | | 267 comfort that both the speaker and the hearer knew to be false, yet were grateful to the other for uttering. Now and again they attempted to talk about other things—the things that were generally so full of interest for them both; but underneath the talk they were conscious of that dull ache of anxiety which pegs steadily on and takes the flavour out of everything.

The nurses arrived and were installed, and Lord Westerham duly interviewed the doctor, giving him a free hand to call in a second opinion the very first moment he considered a second opinion advisable: and finally his lordship left Wyvern's End, feeling that, with Lady Esther in possession, the sick child would lack nothing.

When he got back to town he found Beryl resting in her boudoir preparatory to dressing for the dinnerparty and subsequent ball; and his sore heart went out to her in a longing for that comfort which no one but a man's wife can bestow—that equal bearing of each other's burden and equal sharing of each other's cross which is only possible between two who are really one. But as he approached her with outstretched arms, the cautious Beryl waived him aside.

"Did you find Win with diphtheria after all," she asked; "or was it, as I expected, one of Cousin Esther's false alarms?"

"They are afraid it is diphtheria," Westerham replied, in an unnecessary attempt to break the bad news gently; "but Taylor hopes it will soon yield to treatment."

"Did you see the child?"

"Of course I did, poor little chap! He looks awfully seedy." And Wilfred's eyes grew moist at the memory of his darling's sufferings.

"How very foolish of you, Westerham, when you | | 268 know as well as I do what a dreadfully infectious thing diphtheria is! I wonder you hadn't more sense."

"But, Beryl, I couldn't know the boy was ill and keep away from him," pleaded Westerham.

"Why not?I could, and I'm the boy's mother! I think it was most wrong and foolish of you, and most inconsiderate towards me. You might give me diphtheria! Well, at any rate, don't come near me or kiss me, for goodness' sake: and I think you'd better order the single brougham to take you to the Silverhamptons', as I should be afraid of being boxed up with you in the closed car after you've exposed yourself to infection."

Westerham was too unhappy to be angry; he only felt dead tired. "Very well, just as you like," he answered listlessly, as he went out of the room and closed the door behind him.,

As long as he lived he felt he could never forget that evening, and all the horror of Lady Silverhampton's dinner and Lady Kesterton's ball. And he also felt that he could never forgive their ladyships for having given such parties, although—as a matter of fact—they were very nice parties indeed. But Lord Westerham most unjustly hated both the hostesses for years afterwards, as we are all prone to hate those unwitting persons who are unconsciously associated with our bitterest hours of sorrow or pain. Both the dinner and the ball were excellent, the dresses gorgeous, the company brilliant: Beryl looked absolutely lovely in a diaphanous sea-green gown, with her diamond tiara on her golden hair: and the admiration she obviously excited was enough to turn the head of any husband. Yet all the time he kept saying to himself, "And she never once asked how the poor little chap really is!"

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Then followed a terribly anxious time both for Lord Westerham and for Esther. Although every known remedy had been applied, and the best opinions had down from London, little Lord Winfieldale did not get on as well as he ought to have done. In the first place, it was a very serious attack; and in the second, he was a very young child, and the conjunction of untoward circumstances threatened to prove too much for him.

Esther stayed on at Wyvern's End, taking all the reins of household government into her own capable hands; and Westerham ran down from town every day. As a matter of fact, there was nothing that he could do for the boy, who was perfectly happy with Esther and his Nannie; and he could not very well stay on at Wyvern's End with Esther, unless Beryl were there too. This Beryl absolutely refused to be, as nothing would convince her that the boy's life was really in danger. She was one of those superbly obstinate women whom it is impossible to convince against their will.

Every day Esther walked across the park to the Dower House, nominally for the sake of fresh air and exercise, but also in order to assuage her anguish of anxiety at that fountain-head of comfort which has no equal in this world, and no superior in the next; for even the Divine Comforter could find no more perfect simile for His own ineffable consolations than "as one whom his mother comforteth even so will I comfort you."

On one of her daily calls at the Dower House, Esther found her sister sitting with the Dowager, the Duchess having run down from town to pay one of her frequent visits to her beloved mother. The women of the Victorian era excelled in some relations of life, and | | 270 fell short in others: but there is no doubt that as daughters they left nothing to be desired. With them filial piety was developed into a fine art.

"Oh! Eleanor, are you afraid of me on account of any infection I might carry?" asked Esther, stopping still on the threshold of her mother's morning-room as soon as she saw that her mother was not alone. "Because, if so, I'll come and see Mamma later in the day."

"Afraid of you, my dear girl? What nonsense!" replied the Duchess. "Come in at once, and sit down, and make yourself at home in your own house. There are compensations even in advancing years, as I am discovering. As one grows old, one is distinguished by more sense and less liability to infection."

"It is very nice to hear you talking nonsense again, Eleanor," said Esther, with a smile, sitting down on an easy chair at a safe distance from the other two. "I have been in such an anxious atmosphere lately that it is delightful to meet a cheerful, irresponsible person again."

"And how is the dear child this morning?" asked Lady Westerham.

Esther's smile faded away. "Not quite so well: we are terribly worried about him. Wilfred has sent for the London man to come and see him again."

"Has Beryl been down yet?" asked Eleanor abruptly.

Esther replied in the negative.

Lady Westerham, seeing the displeasure on her elder daughter's brow, hastened to find excuses for the culprit. "You see, Eleanor, Beryl is so terrified of infection. You must take that into consideration before you judge her too harshly."

"I shall take nothing into consideration, Mamma: | | 271 nothing at all. And as for judging her too harshly, it would be impossible to do so."

Esther said nothing, as was her way when she had nothing kind to say.

"I wish Beryl could hear what people are saying about her," continued the Duchess; "but then, unfortunately, people never do hear what other people are saying about them; the world would be a much better place if they did!"

Lady Westerham still endeavoured to make excuses for her favourite. "But after all, Beryl is so young: not much more than a child herself. And so very, very beautiful that one cannot be very hard upon her."

But the Duchess refused to be mollified. "I can, Mamma; as hard as nails! And she isn't so infantile as all that. Five-and-twenty if she is a day. The fact is, she is a nasty, shallow, selfish little wretch: and I always told you so, but you and Esther wouldn't believe me. I own she is good-looking—for people who admire that empty, yellow-haired type—but when you get below her good looks, there's nothing else. She is like those balloons which the boys used to be so fond of when they were little, and which broke their hearts by bursting and becoming nothing but dirty bits of rag. Prick the bubble of Beryl's beauty, and she is nothing but a dirty bit of rag."

"Still, all our righteousness is only filthy rags, when you come to that," retorted Esther, with a smile.

"But there are degrees of filth," argued her sister: "ours are nothing like so filthy as Beryl's."

"It is not for us to say that, my love," said her mother in gentle reproof; "we must all beware of self-righteousness."

"I do beware of it; but there's nothing self-righteous | | 272 in thinking I'm a better woman than that despicable little idiot. If I wasn't, I'd go into a nunnery or a penitentiary until I was! She is absolutely below normal!"

And in spite of all her mother's endeavours to whitewash the culprit, Eleanor continued to abuse Beryl until the end of her visit.

The following day Westerham entered his wife's boudoir with a white and anguished face. "Esther has telegraphed that the boy is very much worse," he said; "I am going down at once, and you must come with me."

Beryl looked up from her letter-writing. "I am so sorry that Win is worse; but I don't see what good my going there would do. I don't really. And I'm sure if he is worse to-day he'll be better again tomorrow. You really needn't worry about him like this."

"It is your duty. You are the child's mother."

"Of course, if I could do any good I'd go at once," said Beryl amiably: "but I can't. I'm an awfully bad nurse, as you know, and I never have an idea what to do in a sick-room."

"You are the boy's mother," repeated Lord Westerham.

"I know I am; but all the same, he isn't really fond of me—not as he is of Cousin Esther or Nannie. It wouldn't make him a bit happier if I went, because I never can talk to him or play with him; and it is a great mistake to have too many people in a sickroom."

"Play with him!" repeated Westerham bitterly: "that is all you think of—play, play, play from morning till night! But you won't be asked to play with Win; he is past that, poor little chap!"

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"Don't be cross, Westerham," said Beryl, with a bewitching pout, "it isn't nice or pretty of you! If I really believed that Win was dangerously ill, I should be as wretched as you are, but I don't."

But her husband—like her son—was past playing with. "Will you come or will you not?" he asked sternly; "the car will be round in a few minutes."

"I can't come, Westerham: I've told you I can't. I should do no good to the child, and I might do myself harm. I should be sure to catch diphtheria if I went, and I should probably excite the boy and make him worse."

"Esther has not caught it, and she has been with Win day and night."

Lady Westerham shrugged her shoulders. "Oh, Esther is old, and old people never catch things! There is no risk for her at her age, as there would be for me at mine."

"Are you coming or are you not? Have you no mother's instinct in you that forces you to go to your dying baby?"

"For mercy's sake don't be melodramatic, Westerham! It does not suit you. I feel sure that Winfieldale isn't dying: if he were, of course I should come. But it would do nobody any good if I ran into infection and got ill too. It would only make things worse for you than even they are now." There was an expression on Lady Westerham's lovely face that her husband had learnt to understand: an expression of unmoved and immovable obstinacy. When she looked like that, he knew that argument and entreaty were alike useless.

Still he tried the last shot in his marital locker. "Suppose, as your husband, I command you to come with me?"

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At that Beryl fairly laughed. "Oh, Westerham, how absurd! A husband who commands is indeed an out-of-date monstrosity. If you did that, I should send you to the South Kensington Natural History Museum, to be exhibited in the same case as the remains of mammoths and megatheriums and other extinct animals."

Westerham went out of the room without speaking. He could not trust himself to answer. It was so hopeless to try to change Beryl's opinion when once she had made up her mind. She would have come fast enough if she had believed in Win's danger: her husband knew that; but he also knew that she did not believe in it, and that nothing on earth would make her believe in it short of the child's death.

Then followed a fearful twenty-four hours for the watchers round the sick child's bed. Sometimes it seemed as if Life were winning the victory—sometimes as if Death had already won. All that day and all the following night Esther never left the room, as hour after hour passed; and hers was the only voice and hers the only hand that could still the ravings of the pitiful, childish delirium. Little Win needed her as no one had ever needed her before: and to his service she gave herself freely, with no thought of self. Had she thought of herself, her agony would have been more than she could bear; the idea of life without the child was more than she could face even in imagination. She did not weep; there would be time for weeping after he was gone, she felt—all the rest of her life; perhaps another thirty or forty desolate and uncomforted years; but as long as his dear little form was present with her, she gave herself body and soul to him, sparing neither her strength nor her | | 275 care in ministering to his comforts and fighting his battle.

Westerham was with her most of the time, but she never gave a thought to him. The whole of her love and care and attention were reserved for the baby, who had changed the world for her, and who now seemed about to leave her alone again.

And all that dreadful time she prayed as she had never prayed before: an unceasing and wordless cry went up from her soul to Him Who holds the worlds in the hollow of His Hand, and yet took little children in His Arms and blessed them. And gradually a deep peace fell upon her tortured heart—that peace of God which passeth all understanding, and which is only known to those souls who are in direct communion with Him. She felt the mystical Personal Touch which comes to most of us when we are ready to receive it, and which transfigures life, and takes the sting from death, and makes all things new. As she knelt by the baby's cot, she felt there was One standing beside her Who knew all that she was suffering, and in Whose keeping both she and the child were safe for evermore. The horror of thick darkness suddenly fell away from her, and she realized that what men call the shadow of death is only the shadow of His Arms stretched out to receive His own. Suddenly all her resistance was over—all her passionate struggle to save her darling's life from the enemy who fought for it—for it was revealed to her, as it was to Jacob, Who it was with Whom she wrestled until the breaking of the day, and against Whom she could not prevail. At His Touch, His Name was made known to her, and she fell at His Feet and worshipped Him, giving up the child into His keeping of her own free will.

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And as she gave, her gift was given back to her; in her absolute submission she had power with God and prevailed. The Hand That had touched her touched the little sufferer also, and the fever left him, and he fell into a peaceful sleep.

And then Esther knew that in losing her life she had saved it—in giving up everything she had gained all things—and that now the child would not die, but live.

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