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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IT was on the sixteenth of December that Lord Westerham and Beryl Delaney were made man and wife. The knot was tied by the Bishop of Merchester, assisted by the Vicar of the parish; and a very nicelyworded homily was delivered by his lordship in place of the somewhat hackneyed expositions of Saints Peter and Paul, felicitating the happy couple on the excellent judgment each had displayed in selecting the other for a life-partner, and gently hinting at the advisability of cultivating mutual adaptability, and a certain amount of give-and-take, as calculated to smooth the waters of married life, which—like those of the Pool of Bethesda—are occasionally troubled by an angel.

Beryl in her heart of hearts cordially agreed with the Bishop; but in her private, if unexpressed, interpretation of his lordship's words, Westerham was to do all the giving, while she would have no difficulty in carrying out the rest of the episcopal injunction.

Lady Esther, who assisted at the ceremony with a joy at seeing the happiness of Wilfred that almost brought peace to her aching heart, thought within herself how gladly she would have spent herself and | | 194 been spent in giving full measure, pressed down and running over, of her love, and asking but little in return.

But the Duchess, experienced in the ways of husbands, nodded her head in august approval; and, lest her lord's attention should be wandering—as not in-frequently was the case in church—she called upon him to pay due heed to the Bishop's words of wisdom by several of those earsplitting whispers which are described in the language of the stage as "asides." "A life-like snap-shot of me!" she murmured, as the Bishop concluded his discourse by a paraphrase of the ideal wife portrayed in the Book of Proverbs.

Mr. Perkins, who viewed the proceedings with stately dignity from a back pew, whence he could conveniently retire, while the register was being signed, in order to welcome the happy pair on their arrival at the Dower House, was slightly shocked at the implied suggestion that there could be even a ripple upon the sunlit ocean of the matrimonial life of a British earl. Mrs. Brown, the housekeeper, on the contrary, with a keen remembrance of her own adventures on the uncertain sea of matrimony, was equally shocked at the misleading idea that there could even be an occasional calm in those troubled waters: but she loyally held her peace until the wedding-day was over. She felt it was not for her to throw doubt upon the present wisdom and future happiness of "the quality."

It was a pretty wedding, "as it could not fail to be in such a picturesque old church and with such a beautiful bride: if "The Voice that breathed o'er Eden" breathed slightly out of tune, the choir made up for lack of ear by superfluity of lung, and took such excellent care of the sentiments of the occasion that | | 195 the sounds were not unnaturally left to take care of themselves.

In due time the register was signed; Beryl had been kissed by divers privileged relations; the Bishop had offered his ecclesiastical congratulations; the Vicar had followed suit; the younger members of the wedding-party had adorned the occasion with stereotyped jokes, and the elders with stereotyped tears, according to their respective days and generations; and at last the Earl and his Countess drove off amid the cheers of the men and the curtseys of the maidens.

A lady in her bridal finery is not very easy of access; but if Wilfred could not reach Beryl's lips, he covered her hand with kisses as soon as the carriage had left behind the crowd at the lych gates. He was consumed with pride and happiness.

"My beautiful wife!" he murmured passionately, as he kissed again and again the small gloved hand.

Beryl, too, was in a state of blissful content. A Countess, with diamonds and dresses galore, halls and parks, carriages and horses, to say nothing of a husband who adored her, and for whom she cherished as much affection as she was capable of cherishing for anybody, she did well to be happy. But there was a difference: Wilfred was happy because he thought of his wife—Beryl, because she thought of herself.

In due time the reception—the inspection of the numerous wedding-presents, where each guest made for his or her own gift like a sleuth-hound, in order to see where it had been placed—the cutting of the cake—and all the other items of the wedding ritual were over, and Westerham and Beryl had fairly started on their honeymoon. With the courage and the vanity of youth, which does not believe that even cold winds can wither or sea-sickness stale its infinite | | 196 variety, they had decided to go abroad, heedless of the fact that a bad crossing (and it was December), with its attendant ills and disfigurements, might strain almost to breaking-point their mutual affection. But fortunately both were good sailors, and Paris was reached without untoward happenings.

Beryl had never been out of England before, but Paris had become well known to Westerham in his journalistic days. To his astonishment Beryl seemed to care little for pictures, or churches, or fine services. The glories, architectural and musical, of Notre-Dame, the Madeleine, and St. Eustache were of no account to her; the opera indeed she tolerated, but she paid but scant attention to the music, the toilettes of the women and the glances of admiration from the men absorbing all her interest. She went to see and to be seen. She was frankly bored by the treasures of the Louvre, the Luxembourg and the Hôtel de Cluny: but she never tired of the milliners', the dressmakers' and the jewellers' shops. In these she exhibited a pretty taste; and despite her new trousseau, and the gems she had received as wedding presents, she contrived to spend no inconsiderable sum in supplementing the contents of her wardrobe and her jewel-case.

From Paris they went on to Italy: but Beryl showed no more admiration for the glories of Milan and Venice than for those of Paris. Westerham tried to persuade himself that he was not disappointed, and in a measure he succeeded. What was Beryl's lack of artistic appreciation compared with Beryl's matchless beauty? Westerham was tasting for the first time earthly bliss. To have Beryl always with him; to feast his eyes on her perfect face; to stroke her golden hair; to anticipate her every wish; to be startled over and over again with the wonderful thought that these | | 197 were no transitory joys, that she was his for life—these filled him with a rapture that had little place for criticism. So Westerham was happy—happier than he had ever deemed it possible to be, after Esther had refused him. Nor was he alone in his bliss: Beryl, too, was happy. If she did not understand Wilfred or comprehend the depth of his devotion, she liked him immensely. Apart from her enjoyment of the luxury of rank and fine dresses, she could not but feel his tenderness and his thoughtful kindness. So she, too, enjoyed herself in her own way.

Meanwhile Esther was being fed with the bread of affliction and the water of affliction. Altruism is all very well; but while the practisers thereof ought to wrap themselves in the mantle of their virtue and find satisfaction and peace in the contemplation of a good deed well done, as a matter of fact they rarely do anything of the sort. Lady Esther's pampered conscience might impel her to rise to a wonderful height of self-abnegation in her passionate desire to secure the happiness of the man she adored, but it could not prevent her from feeling the wonderful height extremely bleak and desolate; it might likewise induce her to give away half of her cloak, according to the fashion of S. Martin, but it could not hinder her from catching a chill when bereft of fifty per cent, of the protecting garment. That is the way of pampered consciences: they create the demand, but have no intention of providing the supply.

But Esther had one great compensation in the midst of her anguish: there was no drop of bitterness mingled with her cup of sorrow. She possessed one of those rare natures that are free from any taint of jealousy: the fact that Beryl was now enjoying the bliss that she herself had renounced, in no way dimin- | | 198 ished her love for the girl. She also possessed a gift equally rare in a woman—a strong sense of justice; and this enabled her to realize that it was by her own act that Westerham's love had been transferred from herself to Beryl, and that therefore Beryl was in no way to blame—was not even guilty of a shadow of disloyalty towards her cousin. Esther did not belong to that by no means inconsiderable army of martyrs who sacrifice themselves to another, and then spend the rest of their days in punishing that other for having accepted the sacrifice.

But though the Christmas bells brought their gospel of peace and goodwill to the soul of Lady Esther, they brought no message of joy: and the sadness of her heart imprinted its image and superscription on her already prematurely lined brow.

These signs were not lost upon the Duchess, who had all the maternal instincts of a typical elder sister; and they caused her much tribulation and anxious questionings as to what she should do to cheer up Esther.

"I tell you what, Tammy," she remarked to her husband, "Esther has made a terrible mistake. She threw Beryl at Westerham's head, and, of course, as she wouldn't have him, he's gone and married her, and now she's miserable." And the Duchess shook her head more in sorrow than in anger.

The Duke looked up with an amused smile. "That sentence of yours, my love, is not particularly intelligible. How do you know that Beryl is miserable? Has she been writing to confide in you? It seems early days as yet even for a woman to wax eloquent over her matrimonial wrongs. I know that later in the day there is no subject of conversation so innocently delightful to the feminine mind as a husband's lapses | | 199 and limitations: but it appears slightly premature upon a honeymoon."

"Don't be a goose, Tammy," replied her Grace impatiently; "you know as well as I do that it's Esther who is miserable. I wish her conscience had been sent to Jericho!"

"Why treat so valuable an asset as an export? asked the Duke.

"Because a first-class conscience, when in good working order, is frightfully troublesome and expensive. I'd sooner keep a white elephant or a pack of foxhounds myself: unless, of course, it was one of those performing consciences, which are thoroughly broken in and trained to stand on their hind legs and to do parlour tricks, and whatever else you tell them. Those are very convenient sorts of things to have, I admit."

"Very: because then they draw the carriage, while you guide them from behind with the reins."

"Of course, you do," the Duchess rattled on; "and yet you've all the prestige of keeping a conscience—like somebody in some old-fashioned trial who was considered a gentleman because he kept a gig, don't you know? But it must be broken in to harness."

"Yes; that is the sort of conscience that you would like," said the Duke.

"It is the sort of conscience that I've got, I'm thankful to say. I couldn't endure one that shied at everything it sees, as Esther's does: it would make me quite nervous to ride behind it; I don't much like riding behind a shying horse, but I simply daren't ride behind a shying conscience: and it would never do for the daughter of a hundred earls—or, to be quite accurate, of four—to show the white feather, and be afraid to take her own conscience out for exercise. | | 200 And then, if it didn't get any exercise, it would put on weight, and be more burdensome than ever!"

"My love," remarked the Duke, "you sometimes say things which make me regret that I married you, and so for ever resigned the right of taking you down to dinner."

The smile, which was never very far from her Grace's eyes came back into them. "Allow me to tender your Grace a hearty vote of thanks for the kind way in which your Grace has referred to my conversational abilities. But it's no good making fun, Tammy; things are most frightfully serious. Esther is miserable because she hasn't married Westerham; and Mamma is miserable because Esther is miserable; and I am miserable because Mamma and Esther are miserable! And if that isn't bad enough, Westerham is coming home next week and bringing that tiresome little Beryl with him; and then everybody will be ten times more miserable than they were before: and to make matters still worse, my new gown from Paris is an utter failure, and Smallwood doesn't think it can ever be made fit to be seen! Troubles never come singly."

"No: generally matrimonially I have observed," agreed the Duke.

"And what'll be done when the Westerhams do come back, poking themselves into places where they are not wanted (even if it does happen to be their own home) goodness only knows, for I'm sure I don't!"

At this point the Duchess, who really was very unhappy about her sister, found it quite necessary to be petted and comforted: so her husband petted and comforted her to her great content.

The next week the happy pair returned to their ancestral hall, to quote from the local paper, which | | 201 excelled itself in several descriptive columns devoted to what it called "this auspicious occasion." The welcome at the station, the triumphal arches, the addresses from tenants and local authorities and the replies thereto, gave the enterprising reporter an opportunity to which he did full justice: and Westerham (as an old journalist) relished to the full the flowery productions of his erstwhile fellow-worker.

The welcomings, the festivities and the speeches were a new experience for both bride and bridegroom; but while Beryl enjoyed herself immensely, Westerham found the whole thing rather a bore. He was pleased, no doubt, with the friendliness and expressions of goodwill on the part of the neighbouring gentry and the tenants; but he was not particularly fond of making speeches—that was a taste to be acquired subsequently; still, he said what had to be said with propriety and with an evident sense of satisfaction at the efforts to do him honour: so that his speeches, if short, were acceptable, and he made a good impression.

It was always distasteful to Westerham to say the obvious thing: and on occasions such as these the obvious thing is the only thing to be said. Subtlety of expression—and, still more, subtlety of thought—are caviare to an agricultural audience. Therefore Wilfred descended to the commonplace and obvious, despising himself all the while for this necessary descent. But as he looked at the enterprising reporter, who was busy stringing together the pearls and diamonds which were falling from his lordship's lips, a great wave of home-sickness for the old journalistic days swept over Wilfred's soul. People who have ever "done things" always find it somewhat insipid to change an active intellectual life for a passive one; | | 202 just as people who have once lived in London always find it slightly dull to settle down in the country: and—now that the novelty of being a belted earl was over—the bygone joys of being a budding editor shone brightly by contrast. It might be a great honour to be a peer: but it was far greater fun to be a penman. His honeymoon, however, had taught him that Beryl would regard such sentiments on his part as rank lunacy: so he carefully refrained from expressing them. There was only one person who would have understood them, and that was Esther; but he was as yet too well satisfied with his wife's face to expect her to have a head as well—let alone a heart.

The world of women is divided into three classes—those who have heads, those who have faces, and those who have hearts: which doctrine was taught us early by our childhood's well-known forfeit, "Kneel to the wittiest, bow to the prettiest, and kiss the one you love best." The wise man makes up his mind which—in his opinion—is the most important organ, and marries it; and it is rank folly to expect either of the others to be thrown in. If they are, all the better for everybody concerned! But as a rule they are not: for though the superior sex may find it possible on occasions to be "three gentlemen at once," a feminine Cerberus is a very rare bird indeed.

As her sister had surmised, Lady Esther dreaded with unspeakable dread the return of Lord and Lady Westerham to Wyvern's End:and—as is generally the way with the things that we overpoweringly dread—the reality did not prove anything like so terrible as the anticipation. Much as she loved Beryl—unselfishly as she adored Wilfred—Esther had felt that the sight of their mutual happiness would be more | | 203 than she could bear; but when the time came, she found that she could bear it very well indeed.

It is only the sorrows which are tainted with sin that seem more than we can endure, and whereof the realization is more terrible than the anticipation. It was the punishment of Cain that seemed greater than he could bear. And though, perhaps, Lady Esther's sacrifice had been a counsel of perfection—though she had gone out of her way to immolate her happiness upon an altar of her own raising—the altar was raised to no Unknown God, and the burnt offering was pure and without blemish. Perchance she misjudged the God of her fathers when she imagined that He called upon her to give up everything that she held dear—to put away untasted the cup of human happiness, and to pour it on the ground before the Lord:but she did not misjudge Him when she believed that He values not the gift upon the altar, but the love which sanctifies the gift; and that even a cup of cold water given in His Name shall in no wise lose its reward. And the reward came to her not in any rejection of her sacrifice, nor in any substitution of some other form of human happiness in place of the one which she had voluntarily rejected, but in that Ineffable Power Which transfigures death into life eternal, and pain into that peace which passeth all understanding, and Which those who have tasted it know to be none other than the Grace of God.