Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

X

“AH, Mrs. Dressel, we were on the lookout for you — waiting for the curtain to rise. Your friend Miss Brent? Juliana, Mrs. Dressel’s friend Miss Brent —— ”

Near the brilliantly-striped marquee that formed the axis of the Gaines garden-parties, Mr. Halford Gaines, a few paces from his wife and daughters, stood radiating a royal welcome on the stream of visitors pouring across the lawn. It was only to eyes perverted by a different social perspective that there could be any doubt as to the importance of the Gaines entertainments. To Hanaford itself they were epoch-making; and if any rebellious spirit had cherished a doubt of the fact, it would have been quelled by the official majesty of Mr. Gaines’s frock-coat and the comprehensive cordiality of his manner.

There were moments when New York hung like a disquieting cloud on the social horizon of Mrs. Gaines and her daughters; but to Halford Gaines Hanaford was all in all. As an exponent of the popular and patriotic “good-enough-for-me” theory he stood in high favour at the Hanaford Club, where a too-keen consciousness of the metropolis was alternately combated by easy allusion and studied omission, and where the unsettled fancies of youth were chastened and steadied by the reflection that, if Hanaford was good enough for Halford Gaines, it must offer opportunities commensurate with the largest ideas of life.

Never did Mr. Gaines’s manner bear richer witness to what could be extracted from Hanaford than when he was in the act of applying to it the powerful pressure of his hospitality. The resultant essence was so bubbling with social exhilaration that, to its producer at any rate, its somewhat mixed ingredients were lost in one highly flavoured draught. Under ordinary circumstances no one discriminated more keenly than Mr. Gaines between different shades of social importance; but any one who was entertained by him was momentarily ennobled by the fact, and not all the anxious telegraphy of his wife and daughters could, for instance, recall to him that the striking young woman in Mrs. Dressel’s wake was only some obscure protégée, whom it was odd of Effie to have brought, and whose presence was quite unnecessary to emphasize.

“Juliana, Miss Brent tells me she has never seen our roses. Oh, there are other roses in Hanaford, Miss Brent; I don’t mean to imply that no one else attempts them; but unless you can afford to give carte blanche to your man — and mine happens to be something of a specialist . . . well, if you’ll come with me, I’ll let them speak for themselves. I always say that if people want to know what we can do they must come and see — they’ll never find out from me!”

A more emphatic signal from his wife arrested Mr. Gaines as he was in the act of leading Miss Brent away.

“Eh? — What? The Amhersts and Mrs. Ansell? You must excuse me then, I’m afraid — but Westy shall take you. Westy, my boy, it’s an ill-wind. . . . I want you to show this young lady our roses.” And Mr. Gaines, with mingled reluctance and satisfaction, turned away to receive the most important guests of the day.

It had not needed his father’s summons to draw the expert Westy to Miss Brent: he was already gravitating toward her, with the nonchalance bred of cosmopolitan successes, but with a directness of aim due also to his larger opportunities of comparison.

“The roses will do,” he explained, as he guided her through the increasing circle of guests about his mother; and in answer to Justine’s glance of enquiry: “To get you away, I mean. They’re not much in themselves, you know; but everything of the governor’s always begins with a capital letter.”

“Oh, but these roses deserve to,” Justine exclaimed, as they paused under the evergreen archway at the farther end of the lawn.

“I don’t know — not if you’ve been in England,” Westy murmured, watching furtively for the impression produced, on one who had presumably not, by the great blush of colour massed against its dusky background of clipped evergreens.

Justine smiled. “I have been — but I’ve been in the slums since; in horrible places that the least of those flowers would have lighted up like a lamp.”

Westy’s guarded glance imprudently softened. “It’s the beastliest kind of a shame, your ever having had to do such work —— ”

“Oh, had to?” she flashed back at him disconcertingly. “It was my choice, you know: there was a time when I couldn’t live without it. Philanthropy is one of the subtlest forms of self-indulgence.”

Westy met this with a vague laugh. If a chap who was as knowing as the devil did, once in a way, indulge himself in the luxury of talking recklessly to a girl with exceptional eyes, it was rather upsetting to discover in those eyes no consciousness of the risk he had taken!

“But I am rather tired of it now,” she continued, and his look grew guarded again. After all, they were all the same — except in that particular matter of the eyes. At the thought, he risked another look, hung on the sharp edge of betrayal, and was snatched back, not by the manly instinct of self-preservation, but by some imp of mockery lurking in the depths that lured him.

He recovered his balance and took refuge in a tone of worldly ease. “I saw a chap the other day who said he knew you when you were at Saint Elizabeth’s — wasn’t that the name of your hospital?”

Justine assented. “One of the doctors, I suppose. Where did you meet him?”

Ah, now she should see! He summoned his utmost carelessness of tone. “Down on Long Island last week — I was spending Sunday with the Amhersts.” He held up the glittering fact to her, and watched for the least little blink of awe; but her lids never trembled. It was a confession of social blindness which painfully negatived Mrs. Dressel’s hint that she knew the Amhersts; if she had even known of them, she could not so fatally have missed his point.

“Long Island?” She drew her brows together in puzzled retrospection. “I wonder if it could have been Stephen Wyant? I heard he had taken over his uncle’s practice somewhere near New York.”

“Wyant — that’s the name. He’s the doctor at Clifton, the nearest town to the Amhersts’ place. Little Cicely had a cold — Cicely Westmore, you know — a small cousin of mine, by the way — ” he switched a rose-branch loftily out of her path, explaining, as she moved on, that Cicely was the daughter of Mrs. Amherst’s first marriage to Richard Westmore. “That’s the way I happened to see this Dr. Wyant. Bessy — Mrs. Amherst — asked him to stop to luncheon, after he’d seen the kid. He seems rather a discontented sort of a chap — grumbling at not having a New York practice. I should have thought he had rather a snug berth, down there at Lynbrook, with all those swells to dose.”

Justine smiled. “Dr. Wyant is ambitious, and swells don’t have as interesting diseases as poor people. One gets tired of giving them bread pills for imaginary ailments. But Dr. Wyant is not strong himself and I fancy a country practice is better for him than hard work in town.”

“You think him clever though, do you?” Westy enquired absently. He was already bored with the subject of the Long Island doctor, and vexed at the lack of perception that led his companion to show more concern in the fortunes of a country practitioner than in the fact of his own visit to the Amhersts; but the topic was a safe one, and it was agreeable to see how her face kindled when she was interested.

Justine mused on his question. “I think he has very great promise — which he is almost certain not to fulfill,” she answered with a sigh which seemed to Westy’s anxious ear to betray a more than professional interest in the person referred to.

“Oh, come now — why not? With the Amhersts to give him a start — I heard my cousin recommending him to a lot of people the other day —— ”

“Oh, he may become a fashionable doctor,” Justine assented indifferently; to which her companion rejoined, with a puzzled stare: “That’s just what I mean — with Bessy backing him!”

“Has Mrs. Amherst become such a power, then?” Justine asked, taking up the coveted theme just as he despaired of attracting her to it.

“My cousin?” he stretched the two syllables to the cracking-point. “Well, she’s awfully rich, you know; and there’s nobody smarter. Don’t you think so?”

“I don’t know; it’s so long since I’ve seen her.”

He brightened. “You did know her, then?” But the discovery made her obtuseness the more inexplicable!

“Oh, centuries ago: in another world.”

Centuries — I like that!” Westy gallantly protested, his ardour kindling as she swam once more within his social ken. “And Amherst? You know him too, I suppose? By Jove, here he is now —— ”

He signalled a tall figure strolling slowly toward them with bent head and brooding gaze. Justine’s eye had retained a vivid image of the man with whom, scarcely three years earlier, she had lived through a moment of such poignant intimacy, and she recognized at once his lean outline, and the keen spring of his features, still veiled by the same look of inward absorption. She noticed, as he raised his hat in response to Westy Gaines’s greeting, that the vertical lines between his brows had deepened; and a moment later she was aware that this change was the visible token of others which went deeper than the fact of his good clothes and his general air of leisure and well-being — changes perceptible to her only in the startled sense of how prosperity had aged him.

“Hallo, Amherst — trying to get under cover?” Westy jovially accosted him, with a significant gesture toward the crowded lawn from which the new-comer had evidently fled. “I was just telling Miss Brent that this is the safest place on these painful occasions — Oh, confound it, it’s not as safe as I thought! Here’s one of my sisters making for me!”

There ensued a short conflict of words, before his feeble flutter of resistance was borne down by a resolute Miss Gaines who, as she swept him back to the marquee, cried out to Amherst that her mother was asking for him too; and then Justine had time to observe that her remaining companion had no intention of responding to his hostess’s appeal.

Westy, in naming her, had laid just enough stress on the name to let it serve as a reminder or an introduction, as circumstances might decide, and she saw that Amherst, roused from his abstraction by the proffered clue, was holding his hand out doubtfully.

“I think we haven’t met for some years,” he said.

Justine smiled. “I have a better reason than you for remembering the exact date;” and in response to his look of surprise she added: “You made me commit a professional breach of faith, and I’ve never known since whether to be glad or sorry.”

Amherst still bent on her the gaze which seemed to find in external details an obstacle rather than a help to recognition; but suddenly his face cleared. “It was you who told me the truth about poor Dillon! I couldn’t imagine why I seemed to see you in such a different setting. . . . ”

“Oh, I’m disguised as a lady this afternoon,” she said smiling. “But I’m glad you saw through the disguise.”

He smiled back at her. “Are you? Why?”

“It seems to make it — if it’s so transparent — less of a sham, less of a dishonesty,” she began impulsively, and then paused again, a little annoyed at the overemphasis of her words. Why was she explaining and excusing herself to this stranger? Did she propose to tell him next that she had borrowed her dress from Effie Dressel? To cover her confusion she went on with a slight laugh: “But you haven’t told me.”

“What was I to tell you?”

“Whether to be glad or sorry that I broke my vow and told the truth about Dillon.”

They were standing face to face in the solitude of the garden-walk, forgetful of everything but the sudden surprised sense of intimacy that had marked their former brief communion. Justine had raised her eyes half-laughingly to Amherst, but they dropped before the unexpected seriousness of his.

“Why do you want to know?” he asked.

She made an effort to sustain the note of pleasantry.

“Well — it might, for instance, determine my future conduct. You see I’m still a nurse, and such problems are always likely to present themselves.”

“Ah, then don’t!”

“Don’t?”

“I mean — ” He hesitated a moment, reaching up to break a rose from the branch that tapped his shoulder. “I was only thinking what risks we run when we scramble into the chariot of the gods and try to do the driving. Be passive — be passive, and you’ll be happier!”

“Oh, as to that —!” She swept it aside with one of her airy motions. “But Dillon, for instance — would he have been happier if I’d been passive?”

Amherst seemed to ponder. “There again — how can one tell?”

“And the risk’s not worth taking?”

“No!”

She paused, and they looked at each other again. “Do you mean that seriously, I wonder? Do you —— ”

“Act on it myself? God forbid! The gods drive so badly. There’s poor Dillon . . . he happened to be in their way . . . as we all are at times.” He pulled himself up, and went on in a matter-of-fact tone: “In Dillon’s case, however, my axioms don’t apply. When my wife heard the truth she was, of course, immensely kind to him; and if it hadn’t been for you she might never have known.”

Justine smiled. “I think you would have found out — I was only the humble instrument. But now — ” she hesitated — “now you must be able to do so much — ”

Amherst lifted his head, and she saw the colour rise under his fair skin. “Out at Westmore? You’ve never been there since? Yes — my wife has made some changes; but it’s all so problematic — and one would have to live here. . . . ”

“You don’t, then?”

He answered by an imperceptible shrug. “Of course I’m here often; and she comes now and then. But the journey’s tiresome, and it is not always easy for her to get away.” He checked himself, and Justine saw that he, in turn, was suddenly conscious of the incongruity of explaining and extenuating his personal situation to a stranger. “But then we’re not strangers!” a voice in her exulted, just as he added, with an embarrassed attempt to efface and yet justify his moment of expansion: “That reminds me — I think you know my wife. I heard her asking Mrs. Dressel about you. She wants so much to see you.”

The transition had been effected, at the expense of dramatic interest, but to the obvious triumph of social observances; and to Justine, after all, regaining at his side the group about the marquee, the interest was not so much diminished as shifted to the no less suggestive problem of studying the friend of her youth in the unexpected character of John Amherst’s wife.

Meanwhile, however, during the brief transit across the Gaines greensward, her thoughts were still busy with Amherst. She had seen at once that the peculiar sense of intimacy reawakened by their meeting had been chilled and deflected by her first allusion to the topic which had previously brought them together: Amherst had drawn back as soon as she named the mills. What could be the cause of his reluctance? When they had last met, the subject burned within him: her being in actual fact a stranger had not, then, been an obstacle to his confidences. Now that he was master at Westmore it was plain that another tone became him — that his situation necessitated a greater reserve; but her enquiry did not imply the least wish to overstep this restriction: it merely showed her remembrance of his frankly-avowed interest in the operatives. Justine was struck by the fact that so natural an allusion should put him on the defensive. She did not for a moment believe that he had lost his interest in the mills; and that his point of view should have shifted with the fact of ownership she rejected as an equally superficial reading of his character. The man with whom she had talked at Dillon’s bedside was one in whom the ruling purposes had already shaped themselves, and to whom life, in whatever form it came, must henceforth take their mould. As she reached this point in her analysis, it occurred to her that his shrinking from the subject might well imply not indifference, but a deeper preoccupation: a preoccupation for some reason suppressed and almost disavowed, yet sustaining the more intensely its painful hidden life. From this inference it was but a leap of thought to the next — that the cause of the change must be sought outside of himself, in some external influence strong enough to modify the innate lines of his character. And where could such an influence be more obviously sought than in the marriage which had transformed the assistant manager of the Westmore Mills not, indeed, into their owner — that would rather have tended to simplify the problem — but into the husband of Mrs. Westmore? After all, the mills were Bessy’s — and for a farther understanding of the case it remained to find out what manner of person Bessy had become.

Justine’s first impression, as her friend’s charming arms received her — with an eagerness of welcome not lost on the suspended judgment of feminine Hanaford — the immediate impression was of a gain of emphasis, of individuality, as though the fluid creature she remembered had belied her prediction, and run at last into a definite mould. Yes — Bessy had acquired an outline: a graceful one, as became her early promise, though with, perhaps, a little more sharpness of edge than her youthful texture had promised. But the side she turned to her friend was still all softness — had in it a hint of the old pliancy, the impulse to lean and enlace, that at once woke in Justine the corresponding instinct of guidance and protection, so that their first kiss, before a word was spoken, carried the two back to the precise relation in which their school-days had left them. So easy a reversion to the past left no room for the sense of subsequent changes by which such reunions are sometimes embarrassed. Justine’s sympathies had, instinctively, and almost at once, transferred themselves to Bessy’s side — passing over at a leap the pained recognition that there were sides already — and Bessy had gathered up Justine into the circle of gentle self-absorption which left her very dimly aware of any distinctive characteristic in her friends except that of their affection for herself — since she asked only, as she appealingly put it, that they should all be “dreadfully fond” of her.

“And I’ve wanted you so often, Justine: you’re the only clever person I’m not afraid of, because your cleverness always used to make things clear instead of confusing them. I’ve asked so many people about you — but I never heard a word till just the other day — wasn’t it odd? — when our new doctor at Rushton happened to say that he knew you. I’ve been rather unwell lately — nervous and tired, and sleeping badly — and he told me I ought to keep perfectly quiet, and be under the care of a nurse who could make me do as she chose: just such a nurse as a wonderful Miss Brent he had known at St. Elizabeth’s, whose patients obeyed her as if she’d been the colonel of a regiment. His description made me laugh, it reminded me so much of the way you used to make me do what you wanted at the convent — and then it suddenly occurred to me that I had heard of you having gone in for nursing, and we compared notes, and I found it was really you! Wasn’t it odd that we should discover each other in that way? I daresay we might have passed in the street and never known it — I’m sure I must be horribly changed. . . . ”

Thus Bessy discoursed, in the semi-isolation to which, under an overarching beech-tree, the discretion of their hostess had allowed the two friends to withdraw for the freer exchange of confidences. There was, at first sight, nothing in her aspect to bear out Mrs. Amherst’s plaintive allusion to her health, but Justine, who knew that she had lost a baby a few months previously, assumed that the effect of this shock still lingered, though evidently mitigated by a reviving interest in pretty clothes and the other ornamental accessories of life. Certainly Bessy Amherst had grown into the full loveliness which her childhood promised. She had the kind of finished prettiness that declares itself early, holds its own through the awkward transitions of girlhood, and resists the strain of all later vicissitudes, as though miraculously preserved in some clear medium impenetrable to the wear and tear of living.

“You absurd child! You’ve not changed a bit except to grow more so!” Justine laughed, paying amused tribute to the childish craving for “a compliment” that still betrayed itself in Bessy’s eyes.

“Well, you have, then, Justine — you’ve grown extraordinarily handsome!”

“That is extraordinary of me, certainly,” the other acknowledged gaily. “But then think what room for improvement there was — and how much time I’ve had to improve in!”

“It is a long time, isn’t it?” Bessy assented. “I feel so intimate, still, with the old Justine of the convent, and I don’t know the new one a bit. Just think — I’ve a great girl of my own, almost as old as we were when we went to the Sacred Heart: But perhaps you don’t know anything about me either. You see, I married again two years ago, and my poor baby died last March . . . so I have only Cicely. It was such a disappointment — I wanted a boy dreadfully, and I understand little babies so much better than a big girl like Cicely. . . . Oh, dear, here is Juliana Gaines bringing up some more tiresome people! It’s such a bore, but John says I must know them all. Well, thank goodness we’ve only one more day in this dreadful place — and of course I shall see you, dear, before we go. . . . ”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30