- CHAPTER VII A REVELATION
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LITTLE Lord Winfieldale's convalescence was a time of great joy to Esther: of that joy which we feel after a happy issue out of all our afflictions, when the mere cessation of pain spells pleasure, and the removal of the rack means rest and ease. After a little while fresh cares and trials beset our path, and the clouds return after the rain: but just at first the reaction of averted sorrow is absolute and abounding gladness of heart.
When once he had taken the turn, and set his little face in the direction of recovery, Win's progress towards health was rapid and unhindered. With the glorious resilience of childhood, he threw off his many infirmities as if they were worn-out garments, and emerged from his illness as sound and whole as if it had never been.
It was also a period of great spiritual peace for Esther Wyvern. That moment of personal communion with her Master at what she believed to be Winfieldale's death-bed—that intimate sense of His actual Presence which almost touched the physical in its vivid sense of reality—had done more to sweep away her hard thoughts of His dealings with His servants than Westerham's arguments had ever done. She knew now—with a certainty far beyond all need of logical proof or theological demonstration—that her faith was founded not upon a fallible Church, but upon
278an infallible Person: that the vital question was not what she felt about Christ, but what He felt about her. She realized the great truth that religion is not subjective, but objective: a truth which shone bright and clear in the early Church, but which centuries of morbid introspection and self-examination and self-discipline have somewhat dimmed and blurred. The mediæval monk knew the temptations of the flesh, and strove to stifle them by scourgings and fastings: the Puritan divine knew the snares of the world, and shut his eyes to the beauty of the world lest he should see the evil as well: the eighteenth century evangelical knew the wiles of the devil, and was so eager to uproot the tares out of his own heart that he sometimes pulled up some of the wheat also: but there was one greater than them all who was determined to know nothing save Jesus Christ and Him crucified. He had realized the objectiveness of Christianity.
Thus Esther Wyvern sojourned for awhile on the Delectable Mountains, called by some "Immanuel's Land," from whence pilgrims can now and again catch glimpses of the gates of the Celestial City: and for time all was well with her. But it is written that "below the mountains there is a stile," from which goes "a path that leads directly to Doubting Castle, which is kept by Giant Despair." And what was true in John Bunyan's time is true to this present day.
The only drawback to Esther's perfect happiness was the fact that there seemed lately to have grown up an intangible barrier between herself and Lord Westerham. Their friendship had ceased to be the perfect and delightful thing that it had been before Win's illness. Esther could not understand it. She had certainly done all that any mortal woman could
279have done for Wilfred and his son at that trying and anxious time: and even her gentle and unexacting spirit was hurt to find that what ought to have rivetted the bond of friendship between herself and Westerham had served rather to slacken it. There was nothing about which she could legitimately complain: he was still as courteous towards her, when they met, as he had ever been; but she could not but be conscious of the fact that he came down to see her much less frequently than he used to do, and was much more distrait and reserved with her than he used to be.
Esther was not one of those tiresome and exacting women who are always doubting the affection of their friends, and requiring assurance of their own lovableness; but she could not help seeing that Westerham had ceased to derive from her companionship that obvious pleasure which it afforded him only a comparatively short time ago.
And this was not all.
After the doctors had been put upon their oaths by Beryl, and had assured her that she could now see her son without any danger of infection to herself, she consented to come—not to Wyvern's End itself—but to the Dower House for that interview with her child which her husband considered so desirable. So to her aunt's she came for a few days, accompanied by Lord Westerham; and met little Win frequently in the park and the garden, as she still firmly declined to hold any intercourse with the boy save in the open air.
The anxiety which had scored fresh lines on Esther's brow and introduced the first silver threads into her light brown hair, had taken no such liberties with young Lady Westerham. This perhaps was hardly to be wondered at, considering that Beryl had absolutely declined to admit into her consciousness that
280anxiety which had scorched Esther's very soul. But what was to be wondered at—and what the household at the Dower House did wonder at—was the fact that Beryl's heartlessness appeared to be compensated for, and more than compensated for, in her husband's eyes, by her wonderful beauty. Her treatment of the child, which might easily have estranged Lord Westerham, seemed rather to have endeared her to him: for never since the first days of his mad passion for her, had he devoted himself so entirely to her service as now. He waited upon her hand and foot; he anticipated her slightest wish; he let his thoughts as well as his eyes continually dwell upon every detail of her matchless loveliness: in short, he played the devout lover as he had not played it since his honeymoon.
And his wife, in return, was very charming to him. She had no compunction as to her behaviour during the time of Win's illness: were it all to come over again she would do exactly the same: nevertheless she realized that her conduct had been far from ideal to the unprejudiced eye, and she was grateful to Westerham for having so completely forgiven and forgotten it, especially as he had been so vexed with her at the time. She was nearly always pleasant and good-tempered, but now she made a special effort to attract and bewitch and enslave him afresh by a beauty which he had originally found so irresistible. Love was—and always would be—a sealed book to her; but of adulation she never tired: and the admiration which she read in her husband's eyes, and which he so openly displayed in the sight of the world, filled her shallow soul with delight. To have her husband still intoxicated with her after three years of married life, was, she felt, a tremendous tribute to her charms; and she appreciated it—and incidentally him—accordingly.
But if Beryl was pleased with Lord Westerham, other people were not. His behaviour aroused most severe comment in the housekeeper's room at the Dower House.
"I can't understand it," said Perkins in sorrow-rather than in anger: "I can't understand it at all; but I'm sure his lordship is nothing like so fond of Lady Esther as he used to be. Just like brother and sister they were—it was a pleasure to see them together. But now they seem nothing at all to each other."
"I've noticed it, too," said Parker; "I passed the remark on it only the other day."
"And after what her ladyship did for him during his little lordship's illness and all!" added Clark, with tears in her soft blue eyes; "I call it most surprising."
"There must be something behind it," said Perkins: "some quarrel or misunderstanding. But I'm sure I don't know what there was on thetapestry for them to quarrel about."
"It's most surprising!" repeated Clark.
"Not at all, Miss Clark," said Mrs. Brown; "there's nothing surprising in what any man does; because if once you allowed yourself to be surprised at the queer things men do, you'd never be able to stop being surprised.I can tell you what's the reason why his lordship has got tired of Lady Esther," she added ominously.
"And what is it, Mrs. Brown?" pleaded the gentle Clark; "pray give it a name."
"The reason is that her ladyship isn't good-looking, and he's a man: that's what the reason is; and more shame to him!" replied the housekeeper, with rising anger.
"I don't see that good looks matter in friendship," argued Parker.
"They matter with men in everything; and nothing else matters at all. That's what men are like! I've been married and I know 'em, to my sorrow!"
"Come, come, Mrs. Brown," said Perkins, feeling that the time had arrived for him to stand up for his sex, " you are too hard on us as a whole. All gentlemen are not so susceptible to the charms of beauty. I remember that a highly educated friend of mine used to say that nothing would ever induce him to marry a good-looking woman, because a handsome wife meant themaxim of expense and themillennium of comfort. Those were his very words."
"French again, Mr. Perkins," was Clark's ingenuous tribute.
The butler beamed. "Not French this time, Miss Clark: Latin."
"Fancy!" gushed Clark. "What a wonderful knowledge of foreign languages you do have! I always think it makes a gentleman seem so wise and accomplished when he knows a lot of foreign languages."
"The fact is," remarked Parker, "that his lordship's so taken up with his wife that he has no eyes for Lady Esther nor for anybody else."
"Just because her ladyship is pretty, and Lady Esther is not. A man all over! " It would be impossible to reproduce in letterpress the scorn of Mrs. Brown's tone.
"And after all Lady Esther's goodness to Baby, and her ladyship's neglect of him! I call it downright hard-hearted and ungrateful! "
283sooner you leave off looking out for it the better. If a woman is good-looking, she can kill all a man's children and trample upon them, and he'll think none the worse of her for it; but she may spend her life in nursing them and looking after them, and doing all their washing at home, and he'll never so much as say ' thank you ' to her if she's plain."
"Your remark reminds me of the story of a Greek lady," said Perkins, longing to display his literary prowess once more before Miss Clark's admiring eyes; "a very beautiful lady who killed all her children. Her name was Medea."
Mrs. Brown sniffed. "And her husband would ' me dear ' her just the same, I'll be bound, if she was as beautiful as you say! He wouldn't mind how many children she killed, if she'd only got a pretty face. That's men all over!"
"Come, come, Mrs. Brown," repeated Perkins, feeling it a soothing and non-committal remark.
But Mrs. Brown absolutely refused to "come, come." "It was just the same with Brown," she continued; "I'm sure nobody could ha' done more than I did for his little boy by his first wife—nobody; though he was by no manner of means what you'd call an engaging child. All the time I nursed him through the measles—and very bad he had them, with chest complications thrown in—there was Brown carrying on with the second housemaid at the Hall, just because she'd got a pretty face. All my care of little Edwin counted for nothing, compared with a pair of blue eyes and a pink-and-white complexion!"
Perkins felt a certain amount of sympathy with the late Mr. Brown; but he also felt that this was not the occasion on which to express it. So all he said was, "Gentlemen may be foolish enough to carry on with a
284pretty face, I admit; but when it comes to marrying, they want something more substantial and comfortable. For my part, if I married, what I should go in for would be a lady who would make my home happy and cosy, and all in beautiful order: everything oh fate and on wriggle, as the French have it."
"Well, you'll never get it with a pretty face, Mr. Perkins, never," replied Mrs. Brown; "the two don't go together, and never have done, as you can see yourself from the story of the Greek lady who was called ' me dear ' because she was so good-looking."
"I'm not much one for pretty faces myself," the wary butler went on; "I go in for what you may call the toot assembly and general style. But even that don't count much in married life, if the lady don't make a man comfortable."
"It seems to count with his lordship," said Clark mournfully; "for I'm sure her present ladyship has nothing but her looks to recommend her."
"And there's no denying," added Parker, "that this illness of his little lordship has aged poor Lady Esther something terrible. She never had any looks to speak of, but she has lost the little she had."
"I can't gainsay you, Miss Parker, though it goes to my heart to admit it," said the faithful Clark; "but I'm hoping that as time goes on my lady will get over the anxiety and look a bit younger again."
"Folks don't go backwards at her ladyship's time of life, Miss Clark!" replied the uncompromising Parker; "more's the pity!"
The ideas which were so freely circulated in the housekeeper's room made their way—though in a more nebulous form—into Lady Esther's brain. As she looked in the glass and saw how the period of hard nursing and cruel anxiety through which she had just
285passed had inscribed its superscription on her worn face and whitening hair, she could not fail dimly to connect this with Westerham's change of attitude towards her; and especially when she saw how the mere possession of beauty not only apparently blinded Wilfred to Beryl's lack of all the domestic virtues, but also induced the Dowager Countess to regard this lack far more leniently than she would otherwise have done.
Esther was no longer bitter because the all-important gift of beauty had been denied to her. In the olden days, when she had contrasted her lot with the lot of those others to whom beauty had been given, her feet had almost gone, her treadings had wellnigh slipt: she had felt that she had cleansed her heart in vain, and in vain had washed her hands in innocency; what availed it all, as long as she was not fair to look upon? And when she tried to understand this, she found it too painful for her. But since then, like the Psalmist of old, she had been into the sanctuary of God, and all doubt and bitterness had been washed out of her heart for ever. She knew that she had been foolish and ignorant; but He had guided her with His Counsel and would afterwards receive her into His Glory. Therefore, though her heart and flesh might fail, her soul was abundantly satisfied.
But though Esther was no longer embittered by what she considered the results of her lack of beauty, she was still human enough to be hurt by them; and Westerham's sudden defection cut her to the quick. And in addition to her pain at his apparent ingratitude, his conduct roused in her that old plea for justice at the hands of Man, which Woman has been offering, in different forms, all through the centuries, and which is a thing quite apart from Woman's longing for love, or from her lust for power. This instinct is not the
286same as her desire to put her foot upon Man's neck, or to lie in the shelter of his arms: it may be co-existent with both of these desires, or unallied with either of them; but it is the instinct which now and again—at different times and in divers places—impels her to plead her cause before Man, and to argue with him face to face; to cry to him as his Maker once cried to him: " Gird up thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me!" In this mood she asks neither for his love nor for his pity: both of those he has given to her in full measure flowing over, and will so continue to give; but, for the time being, she bids him look her square in the face, and mete out to her not. kindness, not consideration, not equality, but justice; the one and only thing which he has withheld from her since she shared with him the fruit of the Eden tree.
And this old sex-instinct, hidden away in the dim recesses at the back of Esther's mind, came to the front, and arraigned Westerham at the bar of her judgment. She was too proud to ask him for his affection, or even for his comradeship; and, as a matter of fact, these were things which neither she nor any other has a right to ask. They are free gifts which none can claim. But in the depths of her soul she demanded of him—and she had a right to demand—his recognition of all that she had done and suffered on behalf of himself and his child. And even her meek and gentle spirit rebelled at the ingratitude which took this opportunity of showing her less consideration than he had ever shown her since first they met.
287him. Even if she had married him, the same thing would have come to pass; he would have wearied of her age and her lack of charm, and his heart would instinctively have gone out to youth and beauty. And how much more parlous would her state have been then than now!
It was nearly a fortnight since Lord and Lady Westerham's little visit to the Dower House, and Wilfred had neither been to see Esther nor had written to her in the interval; when suddenly he made his appearance at Wyvern's End one afternoon when she was up there playing with Win. Esther was shocked to see how ill and worn Westerham looked, and at once asked after Beryl, fearing that he might have some cause for fresh anxiety. But he soon set her mind at rest on that score by assuring her—in the half-reverent, half-tender tone that he had lately always used when speaking of his beautiful young wife—that Beryl was in the best of health and spirits. Six months ago Esther would not have hesitated to ask him straight out what was worrying him, knowing that he would immediately respond to and be grateful for her affectionate sympathy: but he had of late raised up such a strong if impalpable barrier between himself and her, that she felt to intrude upon his thoughts and cares would be a liberty which she dared not take.
After a time he sent Win off with his nurse, and asked Esther if she could give him a few minutes' conversation: whereupon she readily acquiesced, and suggested that he should come and have tea with herself and her mother at the Dower House. But Wilfred curtly refused her invitation, as he said he must get back to town as quickly as possible. So Esther sat down by the library window, and calmly waited for him to speak.
"I want to consult you about Win's going to the seaside," he began in an abrupt, absent way, quite unlike his usual manner; "the doctors say he ought to go to the sea for a thorough change after such a long illness, and I don't quite see how to manage it."
Esther drew herself up. "Couldn't you and Beryl take him?" she asked rather coldly. "There is nothing for Beryl to be frightened of, for he is absolutely free from all possibility of infection now."
"Beryl isn't frightened; she has quite got over that: but, you see, she doesn't want to leave town just at the height of the season, and I don't think Win ought to wait on without a change till the end of July. Taylor says he is absolutely all right again, but he needs a change."
"I certainly shouldn't like him to go with only Nannie and the under-nurse in charge," said Esther firmly. "Nannie is most efficient and trustworthy, and absolutely devoted to Win; but the sole responsibility would be too much for her: I'm sure she wouldn't undertake it."
"No, I shouldn't like that, either," said Westerham: "I should be worrying about the little chap all the time."
"So should I," added the woman who loved Win quite as much as his father did. "Are you sure Beryl won't go?"
"She says not, and I shan't press her," replied Wilfred, with a look on his face that showed he did not mean to talk about Beryl's shortcomings.
"Then shall I take him?" asked Esther, who found it quite impossible to steel her heart for long against anyone who needed her. "It would do Mamma and me good to have a dose of sea air, and we should both love to have Baby with us."
Westerham's face lightened visibly. "Thank you, Esther, I knew you would say that. It is the thing that I should like above all others. I'm never really happy about the child except when he is with you."
His tone had become so friendly that Esther took courage. "And you'll run down and see us sometimes, won't you, Wilfred?"
The light died out of Westerham's face at once. "No, I can't," he answered abruptly.
Lady Esther drew herself up: her pride was up in arms at this unmerited rebuff, but it hid its armour under a velvet glove. She was far too well bred to show that she had even noticed Wilfred's ungraciousness, much less been hurt by it. So she deftly turned the conversation on to easier lines, and confined herself to discussing with Westerham the arrangements of the proposed seaside visit until his departure.
But the iron of his unkindness had entered into her very soul, and she felt that she could bear the pain of it no longer in silence, but must salve her wound with the balm of human sympathy. Consequently the next time that she found herself en tâte-à-tâte with her sister, she confided to the Duchess her distress at Wilfred's apparently unaccountable and unjustifiable conduct, and asked if her Grace could suggest any possible explanation of it.
Contrary to her custom the Duchess looked at Esther for some moments in silence, with an expression of mingled astonishment and tenderness in her blue eyes. Then she said.: "My dear child, do you mean to tell me that you don't know?"
290turning against me, and being as disagreeable to me as he once used to be nice!"
Again the Duchess marvelled. Such innocency Esther's age was beyond her comprehension; and she felt it was time for enlightenment. "My dear Esther, do you mean to tell me that you don't know that Westerham is in love with you; and that what you call his disagreeableness is only a laudable attempt on his part to do the straight thing?"
Esther went as white as death, and stretched out her hands as if to ward off a blow. "Hush, Eleanor, hush! You don't know what you are saying."
"Yes, I do; and what's more, I've known it am wanted to say it for a long time, because I saw difficult you and your stupendous innocence were making things for Westerham. He really has behaved very well, and is doing his level best to be a good husband to that irritating little idiot that you drove him into marrying: but your saintliness and your unselfishness and the rest of your bag of tricks have been almost too much for him, poor dear!"
Esther groaned, and hid her face in her hands. "Oh, Eleanor, it isn't true! It can't be true!" she cried. But her sister's calm way of stating the case carried conviction nevertheless.
The Duchess was very kind, but also very sensible. "It is true, my dear, and therefore has to be faced; and not only faced, but made the best of. As you know it was against my judgment that you refused to marry Westerham, and rammed Beryl down his throat instead; but now that she is down his throat she has got to stick there, and the easier you make it for him swallow her the better. I detest her, and always have done so, and I don't feel it incumbent upon me to do otherwise; but Westerham—poor fool!—has bound
291himself by oaths to love and honour and cherish the selfish little thing, and he has got to do so whether he likes it or not; and you have got to stop making it impossible for him to do so."
After they had talked over the matter for some time, Esther lifted tear-filled, pleading eyes to her sister. "But I never thought it possible that he could come back to a faded old maid like me after loving a young and beautiful woman like Beryl. I never dreamed that he could care for me again—not in that way—after he had cared for her!"
The Duchess sighed. "My dear, you have ridden your youth-and-beauty hobby-horse to death! I'm the last woman to pretend that men aren't all more or less fools when a pretty face is concerned; but the folly is not necessarily chronic. After a while they find that a pretty face, with no heart or brains to back it up, won't wash. Unlike the rest of his ignorant but well-meaning sex," she continued with sisterly candour, "Westerham had the sense not to fall in love with a pretty face at first: and why you couldn't have let well—such exceptional well—alone, I never can imagine! What should you have thought of me if I'd refused Tammy because I thought he'd have found a deeper happiness in a Grecian nose, or a higher ecstasy in a golden head? I knew when I was well off—and when he was—and jumped at him: and we've been happy ever after."
"But what am I to do now?" asked Esther, wringing her hands. In the midst of her misery she felt Eleanor's cheery common sense was a sheet-anchor.
"I'm afraid that your duty now is quite plain and very unpleasant. You've got to see as little of Westerham as possible, and give him the chance—if he is virtuous and stupid enough to avail himself of it—of
292falling in love again with that horrid little Beryl as soon as he can."
"And mayn't I even be friends with him?"
"Certainly not: that way danger lies. My dear," and the Duchess laid a loving hand on her sister's shoulder, "I'm afraid that that tiresome, overfed conscience of yours has been given something to cry for ai last. At one time it was always trumping up imaginary jobs, and doing them to everybody's discomfort; but now it has got its work cut out for it—and pretty hard work too!"
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