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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THEN followed a time of great darkness for Esther Wyvern. She felt as if an earthquake had shattered her world to ruins, and she herself stood desolate and broken-hearted amid the wreckage. After her first appeal to her sister that the friendship between herself and Lord Westerham should continue, she made no other; for she saw that Eleanor was right in her assumption that Wilfred and herself must be everything to each other or nothing: no middle course was possible between them.

But the inevitableness of the end of the companionship which had meant so much to her, was a source of great sorrow to Esther. She had felt it—felt it deeply—when she had seen that there was a gradual estrangement arising between herself and Wilfred; but she had comforted herself with the thought that it was only a phase, and that he would overlook her lack of beauty again, as he had overlooked it once before, and so things would once more be pleasant and easy between them. But now that she understood the reason of that apparent estrangement—understood that it was but a mask to hide the love which Wilfred had striven in vain to quench—she realized that the break between them was indeed final.

Moreover, the inevitable had happened with regard to her own feelings towards Westerham. Her certain knowledge of his love for her had awakened to


life her former love for him; and she knew that now mere friendship was as impossible to her as it was to him. Nevertheless she mourned the death of that friendship with all her heart.

But sorrow was not the hardest thing that Esther had to bear. There was something far worse than sorrow to a woman of her type; something which neither admitted of sorrow's alleviation nor of sorrow's consolation; and that was the consciousness of sin: an expression strange and unknown to modern ears, which are accustomed to be soothed by nebulous dogmas and indefinite dissertations on the tolerant good nature of a pantheistic Deity, but real enough to the old-fashioned Evangelical school in which Esther had been brought up. She did not attempt to gloss the thing over in the modern fashion, as some irresistible (and at bottom beautiful) instinct of Nature which she could not repress: nor, again, to dress it up as some exquisite spiritual craving, too refined for the ordinary human being to understand: no; she looked it full in the face and called it by the name by which it is called in the Ten Commandments; and loathed it and shrank from it and repudiated it accordingly.

She juggled with no up-to-date casuistry: to her the whole situation was hideously and horribly simple: she loved Westerham, and he loved her, and he was another woman's husband.

And even this was not the worst. What agonized her even more than her own sin was the fact that—through her—Wilfred had sinned also. She not only loved another woman's husband: she was responsible for the fact that the man whom she cared for more than for any other loved a woman who was not his wife. In order to understand what these considerations


meant to Esther, it is necessary to put aside the present toleration of an indulgence toward such lapses, and to regard the question as the Evangelicals regarded it some thirty or forty years ago, and as the Almighty, it may be presumed, regards it at the present day: as a matter which allows of no smoothingover, but of which the prologue is "Thou shalt not," and the epilogue is "The second death."

And what to Esther was the most terrible thought of all was the knowledge that the whole thing—the sin and the sorrow of both Wilfred and herself—was entirely her own doing, and the consequence of her own action. She saw it clearly now—too late. She was too just a woman to fall into the common human error of laying to God's charge that which she had done herself; of upbraiding the Almighty for willingly afflicting and grieving the children of men, when in reality the children of men were wilfully afflicting and grieving themselves. God had given her her heart's desire, and she had put it away from her in her spiritual pride. She had made a god of her own conscience, and set it up and worshipped it in place of Him Who had said, "Thou shalt have none other gods but Me." When He offered her the cup of sorrow she had been willing to drink it: but she had pushed His Hand aside when He put to her lips the cup of joy. She had forgotten that "Not as I will, but as Thou wilt" applies to everything—to happiness as well as to grief: the prayer was uttered in the Garden of Gethsemane, but was fulfilled in another garden at the dawn of Easter Day. Esther had learnt submission to God's Hand when it lay heavy upon her, but she had rebelled against it when it strove to lift her up. And the result of her rebellion was the result of all rebellion: sorrow and darkness as of the shadow of death.


But if her Evangelical training had taught her the nature of the disease, it had also shown her where the remedy was to be found. She knew her sin could be pardoned and washed away: but she also knew that it could not be condoned or glossed over. As she meditated upon the matter, and tried to master the lessons that life was teaching her, she saw that both she and Wilfred had been right in their apparently diverse views as to the Hellenic and the Hebraistic conceptions of life. The Jew and the Greek did not really preach opposing doctrines: they only set forth different facets of the one great jewel of truth. Wilfred had been right when he bid her take her happiness as the gift of God: and now she was right to turn her back upon happiness as the snare of the devil. Her mistake had been the old mistake of deciding for herself which of the fruits of the garden she might and might not eat. But now that at last she was willing to do the will, she knew the truth of the doctrine: she experienced no doubts as to what was right and what was wrong, as she had done before: her way was made plain before her face, with all its stones and its briars and its cold and lonely heights: and she knew that it must never, if she could help it, cross her lover's path again.

Of course—being a gentlewoman as well as a good woman—she recognized that nothing must be done which could cause misunderstanding or inconvenience or pain to other people. She and Westerham must learn so to conduct themselves before their acquaintances and the members of their respective households, that no one—most especially Beryl—should ever guess the true state of affairs: but all real companionship—all interchange of thought and community of interest—must cease between them from this time forth; and


they must only meet on those occasions when the keeping up of appearances and the sensibilities of those nearest and dearest to them demanded it.

It was very terrible, she felt, that this thing should have happened to her of all people: but she had the justice to admit—as many of us would admit if we only had the sense to perceive it—that her troubles were to a great extent her own fault. None the less easy to bear on that account, perhaps: but all the more necessary to be borne with patience and fortitude.

Lord Westerham, likewise, was very miserable—quite as miserable as Lady Esther. Although he had not the additional pang of feeling that it was his own doing, on the other hand he had none of her feminine power of endurance and of submission to the inevitable: and, moreover, he was younger than she, and had all youth's hunger for happiness. He did not in the least attempt to hug his grief, as Esther—being a woman—was perhaps prone to do: on the contrary, he tried his utmost to get over his misplaced affection, and to fan the ashes of his passion for his wife once more into flame. He dwelt persistently upon the thought and the sight of Beryl's beauty, and endeavoured to stir himself to fall in love with it once more. But all in vain. His passion for her—although intense while it lasted—had never risen above the physical plane: she possessed no intellectual gifts wherewith to enlist his friendship, nor spiritual ones whereby to compel his reverence. As a matter of fact, her society bored him as much as his bored her; and it would have been impossible even for any one who knew her much less thoroughly than did her husband, to feel any respect for her selfish, shallow character. For some men—perhaps for many men—her mere beauty would have been enough; but Westerham


asked for something more. He longed for a wife who would have the power not only to stir his senses, but also to stimulate his intellect and to elevate his soul; who would have continued to be his chosen companion and his highest inspiration after the days of youthful passion had passed away.

And it was undoubtedly hard upon him that—having originally possessed the wisdom to understand his soul's need and to choose the highest instead of the most outwardly attractive—Esther's conscience had not allowed him to ratify this wise choice. Of his own free will, and without first having to experience the unsatisfactory nature of an inferior selection, hehad loved the highest when he saw it: and yet Esther had deliberately turned his eyes from the contemplation of the highest, and had compelled him to select the lower in its place. Surely here he had just cause for complaint. Yet he never blamed her, even in thought. He knew that her motive had been right even though her action had been wrong: and his three years' experience of his wife's absolute selfishness, had taught him to look with more than lenience on all who erred on the other side.

His only happiness now lay—as Esther's only happiness now lay—in the child whom they both adored: and they were fast learning the great lesson of Nature that it is the part of the older generation to stand on one side to make way for the generation which is yet for to come; that middle-aged men and women must cease to live or to think for themselves, but must live instead in the careers of those that are coming after them. And the learning of this lesson was necessarily much easier to Esther at forty-three than it was to Westerham at thirty-one.

But while Wilfred and Esther were eating the bread


and drinking the waters of affliction, Beryl was thoroughly enjoying herself. In the first place, she was in splendid health, and the delights of her rank and wealth had not yet lost all their novelty for her. Moreover, her husband was kinder and more indulgent to her than he had ever been. We are none of us ever so nice and agreeable to people as whenwe know that we are behaving badly to them, andthey don't: and Lord Westerham was no exception to this rule. He was always trying to make up to Beryl for the wrong he had done her in ceasing to love her—to expiate in some way his lapse of marital duty in the spirit, by superabundantly fulfilling it in the letter. And the very fact that he had ceased to love her made it far easier for him now to be good-tempered and indulgent than it was in the days when her presence stirred him with passion and her absence with jealousy. As her indifference in times past had made her always pleasant and easy with him, so his indifference now made him pleasant and easy with her: and she was not clever enough to perceive the parallel between the two. In former days it used to cut him to the quick when she fell short of his ideal of motherhood: but now it did not matter to him in the least what she fell short of, for she and his ideals had ceased to have anything to do with one another. In former days it used to hurt him when she showed how: little love she had for him: but now that he no longer loved her, he preferred that she should not care for him either. Her neglect of the boy was now rather a relief than a source of regret: for she had never taken proper care of the child's health, and was utterly incapable of training his mind. Esther fulfilled Wilfred's ideal of motherhood; Esther was almost always with Win; therefore Wilfred's mind was at rest about his son.


It had been arranged—much to the delight of old Lady Westerham and Esther—that the boy should have a suite of nurseries furnished at the Dower House, and spend his time there when his parents were not at Wyvern's End: and although that arrangement prevented Westerham from seeing as much of the child as he otherwise would have done (since seeing the boy involved seeing Esther also), he was so well content for Win to be under Esther's care and influence, that he put his own pleasure on one side.

And so the time passed on.

One November morning Esther was standing at the morning-room window looking over the park to the break in the belt of woods where the white facade of Wyvern's End filled the gap and dominated the whole landscape. And as she stood and looked at the dreary scene spread out before her eyes, a great weariness overwhelmed her spirit; that weariness which comes to all of us at some time or another, when the battle of life hardly seems worth while. She was tired—tired to the death—of fighting against her love for Wilfred, which, in spite of all her struggles to subdue it, still burned in her heart. She had done all she could; she had fought and suffered and prayed; she had put, as far as was feasible, Wilfred out of her life altogether, and never saw him if she could possibly prevent it; nevertheless the battle continued, and her constant warfare against the sin which so persistently beset her had wellnigh worn her out. Just at first the very enormity of the temptation which confronted her had braced her to withstand it: the sense of shock and excitement had borne her up. But long struggles—like long illnesses—are far the hardest to bear and the most difficult to relieve; and poor Esther's present strain promised to prove too much for her.


Moreover, she missed Wilfred far more than she had ever imagined that she would. As long as she thought that his fickleness was the cause of the coolness between them, her pride—of which, underneath her gentle exterior, she possessed no small share—had supported her: but now when she understood that the difficulty was not his fickleness but his faithfulness, her erstwhile support forsook her and fled. Her unselfishness likewise came to her aid as long as she believed that Wilfred was happy although she was not: but her realization of the fact that he was every whit as wretched as she was, robbed her even of that consolation.

Every way she turned there seemed nothing but misery: and the fact that the misery was all of her own making rendered it none the less easy to endure. And there seemed so much of it, too; such an endless vista of dark and dreary days stretched out before her mental vision. She was not really old after all; only fortyfour; and the prospect of another thirty years or more, wherein all the tomorrows should be as today, simply appalled her. Her spirit shrank from the mere contemplation of it.

Of course there was Win—dear little Win, who at that moment was out driving in the pony-cart with her mother: but the wave of depression that rushed over her was so dark and so deep that even the thought of Win failed for the moment to comfort her.

A nameless horror was upon her—a horror of thick darkness and the shadow of death—which seemed to presage and to portend something more dreadful still. She felt as if some trouble, some terrible event, was about to happen. The whole of her spiritual outlook was enveloped in that weird and lurid gloom which


we sometimes see in the physical world just before terrific storm.

And as she stood and trembled, the storm broke.

Perkins came into the room—as was usual about this time—to bring in the morning paper: but the moment Esther saw his face she knew that something terrible had happened. He held the paper tightly in his shaking hand, and his face was livid and lined.

"What is it, Perkins?" she asked quickly.

The butler's voice trembled so that he could hardly articulate. "Excuse me, my lady—but there's bad news—dreadful bad news—about his lordship."

Esther stood calm in the clutches of despair. "Tell me the worst, Perkins. Is he dead?"

Perkins could not speak, but handed her the paper, pointing with a trembling finger to a sensational paragraph headed—


"The Earl and Countess of Westerham killed on the Spot"

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