- CHAPTER XI THE WANT SUPPLIED
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THE WANT SUPPLIED
IT was not, however, until the Mershires had migrated to Scotland for the twelfth of August, that Lady Esther allowed the seed planted in her mind by her worldly-wise sister to sprout and blossom into practical politics. It was not until Eleanor was safe off the ground and occupied in making game of her husband's grouse instead of her sister's scruples, that Esther took active measures towards carrying out a plan which she, in the transcendent unselfishness of her soul, had evolved for securing Lord Westerham's permanent happiness and comfort.
"It will be rather quiet for us now that Eleanor has gone away," she remarked to her mother, with a subtlety equal to an unworthier cause; "so I have asked Beryl to come and stay with us for a little visit. It seems ages since she was here."
Lady Westerham walked straight into the trap, as the Duchess never would have done: but it is only our own day and generation that see through us properly. It is comparatively easy to throw dust in the eyes of our near ancestors and our immediate successors; but the eyes that opened contemporaneously with our own, possess—as far as we are concerned—a clearer power of vision. Her ladyship, moreover, was a woman in whom the feeling of kinship ran strong, and any hospitality shown to her own people was always a joy to her.| | 148
Beryl Delaney was the only child of Lady Westerham's youngest sister, Adelaide: and Adelaide Henderson—in spite of being the handsomest member of an undeniably handsome family—made the poorest match, and married an Irish officer of unlimited charm and very limited means. Being both the youngest and the beauty of the family, Adelaide was undeniably spoiled, and was accustomed to the unbounded enjoyment of her own way: so that when that way took the form of marriage with the best-looking man she had hitherto come across, she insisted on having it at all costs. That the costs were heavier than one of her pleasure-loving nature could afford to pay, did not enter into her calculations until too late; and therefore, not long after the birth of her little daughter, she gracefully retired from a world which she had lost for love, but which—after practical experience on the question—she decided had been far from well lost. Major Delaney—having also profited by experimental teaching—chose for his second wife a plain woman who was the eldest, and consequently the least indulged, of a large family, and who made him as happy as Adelaide had made him miserable. The new Mrs. Delaney became at once an excellent stepmother to little Beryl; and in due time a still more excellent mother to two plain little boys of her own: but—as was perhaps but natural—the predecessor's relatives thought but little of her; and Beryl imbibed the opinions of her mother's family. To convince the Hendersons of the fact that the reigning Mrs. Delaney was a better mother to Beryl than selfish, beautiful Adelaide could ever have been, was a task beyond mortal powers; so they always spoke of the child as "poor little Beryl," and had her to stay with them as much as possible.| | 149
It thus came about that Beryl was always, so to speak, on a visit, and nobody was permanently responsible for her training and upbringing; with the inevitable consequence that her education resembled a set of serial magazines rather than a consecutive book—and a set, moreover, of which some of the most important numbers had been mislaid.
She was extraordinarily beautiful—more beautiful than either of her handsome parents had ever been: tall and slim and willowy, with pale-gold hair and sea green eyes and a complexion like the pink lining of a sea-shell. Her features were practically perfect, and of the Greek type: but for all that, there was something lacking in her beauty—some indefinable want which made it fall short of absolute perfection. It was rather the beauty of a mermaid or a wood-nymph, than of a living, loving woman. There seemed to be no soul inhabiting the sea-green eyes; no heart flushing the shell-pink cheek. Not that there was anything unkind or ill-natured about her: quite the contrary; it was not the presence of evil but the absence of good that was to be deplored in the composition of her character. Her heartlessness was passive rather than active. Her callousness was like the callousness of children and of all very young creatures: it was not unkind, it was merely careless. She said what she thought, quite irrespective of other people's feelings, just as children do; and—as with the unflattering remarks of children—people rather regretted the cause of the speech than resented the criticism of the speaker. If a grown-up person fails to approve of us, we not unnaturally blame that person's taste: but if a child fails to approve of us, we blame our own unworthiness of approbation. And so it was with Beryl Delaney: when she showed—as | | 150 she openly did—that she considered anybody old or unattractive, that person did not challenge her judgment with indignation, but accepted it with humility of heart: as would have been the case had Beryl been two years old instead of two-and-twenty.
There are certain people who retain this light-hearted outspokenness of childhood into later life, and as a rule they are very attractive people, but they are also somewhat depressing ones: because the underlying tenderness and simplicity of childhood are no longer theirs. "The primrose of the later year" is not altogether like "to that of spring," whatever the poet may say: and the (so-called) happy souls, whom the passing years leave untouched, may be happy themselves, but they do not bring happiness to those around them. The later year wants something more substantial than primroses: it wants the mellow fruit and the ripened grain and all the glory and the joy of harvest. What is the use of the years, if they pass by leaving us untouched and teaching us nothing? The apple-blossom of the later year, which now and again is seen, is similar in appearance to that of spring: but it is merely ornamental and bears no fruit. Men do not want apple-blossom in the autumn: they want apples.
Beryl Delaney possessed in no small degree that exuberant youthfulness which is apt to make other people feel old, just as she possessed that type of beauty which is apt to make other people look plain. She could not help it: she was made that way, and it was not her fault that it was a make which contributed considerably more to her own joy than to the joy of others.
She had always been a great favourite with Lady | | 151 Westerham and Esther, and had spent much time at Wyvern's End from her earliest childhood. Esther positively adored her. From the time that Beryl was a baby in arms and Esther a girl in the school-room, Esther had been her cousin's devoted slave, asking nothing in return for her abject devotion, as was the way of Esther. Of course when the child grew up she made Esther feel old and plain, as was the way of Beryl; but Esther was so used to feeling old and plain, and had so thoroughly accepted such conditions as the necessary conditions of her life, that Beryl did not depress her as she did most people. Esther, moreover, had that consuming adoration for personal beauty which is characteristic of certain unattractive women.
It is a generally accepted saying that women do not admire each other's good looks; but it is a false saying, nevertheless. It is doubtful if the most susceptible of men feel the same worshipping and enthralling and at the same time impersonal enthusiasm for a beautiful woman as some of her uncompromisingly plain sisters do.
The Duchess had never shared her mother's and sister's devotion to Beryl Delaney. In the first place, though by no means a beauty, she was a much more attractive woman than Esther, and therefore did not share Esther's creed that pretty people could do no wrong: nor, on the other hand, did she share Lady Westerham's creed that blood-relations could do no wrong: and, in the third place, she was a much better judge of character than either of the others, and so Beryl's charms in no way blinded her to Beryl's defects.
But though she herself did not succumb to the effect | | 152 of those charms, her Grace was far too clever a woman to underrate their possible effect upon other people: and especially upon a young man whose affections had been blighted and whose leg had been broken, and who was now rebounding from the one and recovering from the other.
Esther was clever enough to know that Eleanor would have been clever enough to know this: and that was why she did not invite Beryl to the Dower House until Eleanor was safe in Scotland.
If any one had accused Esther Wyvern of wearing a hair shirt or peas in her shoes, she would have denied the soft impeachment with some asperity as charging her with the practice of what she called Popish customs. But she would have been wrong. No mediæval saint who trod the Pilgrim's Way ever contributed to his own discomfort with more zest than did she to hers. To her mind hair shirts and peafilled shoes (or their spiritual equivalents) were the only wear. Therefore not only did she shut the door in the face of her own happiness, but she proceeded to lock it and to throw away the key.
So Beryl came to the Dower House to help Esther to help Lord Westerham to while away the dreary time of his convalescence: and she succeeded to the fullest extent of Esther's cruellest hopes.
For Westerham being a man—and, moreover, a man with nothing to do—could not avoid noticing Beryl's idiosyncrasy of making other women look old and plain. That is to say, he noticed the effects of this idiosyncrasy as they affected Esther: and he most particularly noticed the cause of it, which lay in the wonderful freshness and exuberance of Beryl's style of beauty.
Then Esther's pilgrim attire hurt her to the point | | 153 of almost unendurable agony: nevertheless, she only drew the hair shirt more tightly round her, and trod the more firmly upon her wounded feet.
Even the most unselfish natures sometimes feel that the sacrifice they are called upon to make is greater than they can bear; and they are upheld by a vague hope that the whole of their burnt-offering may not be consumed—that the uttermost farthing of their gift may not be accepted—that something will still be left to them out of the general holocaust. And, as a rule, this hope is disappointed: the whole of the sacrifice is consumed upon the altar—the last mite of the gift is dropped into the treasury—and there seems nothing left: nay, not even the gratitude of those for whom the sacrifice has been made. And a thick darkness and a vast loneliness fall upon the souls that seem to have made their great sacrifice in vain. Then let them remember that they are not really alone: for beside them stands One Who likewise prayed—and likewise prayed in vain—that the cup which seemed too bitter even for Him to drink might pass from Him: and thus the cup of suffering—being shared with Him—becomes a sacramental Chalice, and a fore-taste of that Fruit of the Eternal Vine which they shall one day drink with Him new in His Father's kingdom.
Esther Wyvern was called upon to drain to the very dregs the cup of suffering that she had deliberately chosen. Of the wisdom and desirability of this choice there may be two opinions; but of the absoluteness of the unselfishness that prompted it there can be but one.
There is no getting away from the fact that after Beryl's arrival at the Dower House, Lord Westerham's convalescence became much less irksome to him | | 154 than it had been before. Day after day Esther took her cousin up to Wyvern's End to cheer the lonely invalid; and day after day the impression which the girl's fresh young beauty made upon the convalescent became deeper and more lasting. The very exuberance of her vitality attracted him more now that he himself was on the sick-list than it would have done had he been in his usual health and vigour: and the fact that his heart was on the rebound, made it specially susceptible to one who was in every respect the antithesis of his ex-lady-love.
Lady Westerham had dim perceptions as to what was happening: but her Victorian delicacy in dealing with affairs of the heart prevented her from saying a word to her daughter upon the subject. She said—and she thought that she believed—that marriages were made in heaven, and that therefore it wasn't for the daughters (or, rather, the mothers) of men to interfere with these Divine arrangements. Had she been twenty years younger, she probably would have had a try at assisting the Hand of Providence by means of her maternal wisdom: but now she was too old to stray far from the line of least resistance.
It was September by this time, yet Westerham was not mourning the longevity of his partridges as he had expected he should: it seemed enough for him to sit in the sunny garden of Wyvern's End in the short golden afternoons, talking to Esther and her cousin, who was no cousin of his.
Beryl appreciated the beauty and the luxury of the stately old house to the full. Hers was a nature to which physical comfort and wellbeing always made a strong appeal. And as she basked in the golden Kentish sunshine of an unusually fine September, she made up her mind that she could not select a more | | 155 suitable spot for the final pitching of that tent of hers which had already moved too long. She hated, as her mother had hated before her, the poverty of her Irish home: she was bored to death by the flavourless adoration of her father and her stepmother and her ugly little brothers; she considered that two-and-twenty was a ripe age, and one, moreover, which no attractive spinster should exceed; and she had gathered from observation of her maternal relations that—though uneasy may be the head that wears a crown—the head that wears a coronet is frequently extremely comfortable.
She did not, of course, know that Esther was in love with Lord Westerham: and it would have made no difference to her if she had. To stand aside in order to secure another person's happiness, was a feat utterly beyond her acrobatic powers. She would as soon have thought of walking upon the palms of her hands instead of upon the soles of her feet, as do anything (to her mind) so foolish. And the possibility that a woman as old and as plain as her cousin could have won the love of a man like Westerham—or, indeed, of any man whatsoever—was one of the things undreamed of in her philosophy. She would as soon have expected him to fall in love with Cleopatra's Needle.
These three were sitting in the sheltered rose-garden of Wyvern's End on one of the still September days, and Esther was expounding to Beryl Wilfred's theory of reincarnation.
"I wonder what I was," asked the girl, raising her heavily fringed eyes to his.
"I know," was Westerham's quick reply: "a mermaid who sat on the rocks, and combed her golden hair, and lured men to destruction."| | 156
"Oh, Wilfred, how horrid!" exclaimed Esther, fearing that Beryl would be as much hurt as she would have been at such an implication.
But Beryl was made of other stuff. She was flattered at the idea—as Wilfred had known she would be. "I don't think it's horrid at all; at least, I think it's rather a nice sort of horridness," she said.
"You certainly belonged to the pagan world," continued Wilfred, looking at the girl with undisguised admiration; "and to all the natural, soulless, beautiful things."
"Then perhaps she was a nymph or a dryad," suggested Esther.
"No, she wasn't. She wasn't quite as human as a nymph. She was a cold-hearted sea-maid who sat singing on a rock."
"I'm sorry I was so cruel to the poor sailors," said Beryl.
"But you weren't cruel," said Westerham; "you were only ignorant and unawakened. You sang because you wanted to sing, and you combed your hair because it wanted combing: and it wasn't your fault that the sailors lost their hearts and their bearings, and drifted upon the rocks and were drowned."
"Thank you, Lord Westerham, for explaining me away so nicely. As you say, the silly sailors weren't my business, but my hair and my voice were."
But Esther would not let this pass. "The sailors were your business, as it was your your voice that had led them astray: you ought to have left off singing and have saved them."
"I couldn't possibly have saved a sailing-ship with no tools but one golden comb, unless I had stuck my tail into a hole that the rocks had made, and then I | | 157 shouldn't have been a mermaid at all, but a dolphin; and they'd have incorporated me into the arms of the City of Bristol. Now Esther wouldn't have made a good mermaid at all, would she, Lord Westerham? At least I mean she'd have made too good a one. She'd have founded a Seamen's Mission at the top of the rock, with a hospital attached, and would have turned her comb into a clinical thermometer to take the temperatures of the poor dears."
Westerham's eye twinkled. "No, she wouldn't: she would have advised them all to go back home and marry their landladies, provided that the landladies were good cooks; and she'd have explained that a fish's tail was a serious drawback in a good house-keeper, and that it was always a mistake for a mortal to marry one." Which remark showed that it was not only his lordship's leg that was on the mend.
"But you said that I'd once been a nymph," Esther remonstrated; "and a nymph is not so very unlike a mermaid."
"Oh, yes, she is; absolutely unlike. Nymphs weren't cold—they were only shy—and they had every opportunity of gathering sticks and making a good fire upon a man's hearthstone," replied Westerham. "They were frightened of mortals, I admit: but quite tender-hearted underneath the fear. But mermaids were neither frightened nor tender-hearted; they simply didn't care one way or the other."
"Then they were cruel," persisted Esther.
Westerham shook his head. "No, they weren't: they were simply ignorant. They had no idea what pain and sorrow were like; therefore they couldn't be expected to have any sympathy with the sick or the sorrowful. You might as well ask a baby to pity its mother's troubles, as ask a mermaid to pity the | | 158 drowned sailors. Pain and sadness simply weren't on the map as far as they were concerned."
But Esther still argued. "You say they were only ignorant and unawakened: then why couldn't they be awakened and taught?"
"They could—and sometimes they were. Have you forgotten Hans Andersen's beautiful story of the little sea-maid who gained a soul because she learnt to love the Prince?" Westerham spoke to Esther, but he looked at Beryl, and his eyes, as he looked, were tenderer than he knew.
"Not because she learnt to love the Prince," said Esther softly; "souls are not won as easily as that; but because she learnt to love him better than she loved herself, and to sacrifice her love on the altar of his happiness."
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