Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XI

AFTER conducting Miss Brent to his wife, John Amherst, by the exercise of considerable strategic skill, had once more contrived to detach himself from the throng on the lawn, and, regaining a path in the shrubbery, had taken refuge on the verandah of the house.

Here, under the shade of the awning, two ladies were seated in a seclusion agreeably tempered by the distant strains of the Hanaford band, and by the shifting prospect of the groups below them.

“Ah, here he is now!” the younger of the two exclaimed, turning on Amherst the smile of intelligence that Mrs. Eustace Ansell was in the habit of substituting for the idle preliminaries of conversation. “We were not talking of you, though,” she added as Amherst took the seat to which his mother beckoned him, “but of Bessy — which, I suppose, is almost as indiscreet.”

She added the last phrase after an imperceptible pause, and as if in deprecation of the hardly more perceptible frown which, at the mention of his wife’s name, had deepened the lines between Amherst’s brows.

“Indiscreet of his own mother and his wife’s friend?” Mrs. Amherst protested, laying her trimly-gloved hand on her son’s arm; while the latter, with his eyes on her companion, said slowly: “Mrs. Ansell knows that indiscretion is the last fault of which her friends are likely to accuse her.”

Raison de plus, you mean?” she laughed, meeting squarely the challenge that passed between them under Mrs. Amherst’s puzzled gaze. “Well, if I take advantage of my reputation for discretion to meddle a little now and then, at least I do so in a good cause. I was just saying how much I wish that you would take Bessy to Europe; and I am so sure of my cause, in this case, that I am going to leave it to your mother to give you my reasons.”

She rose as she spoke, not with any sign of haste or embarrassment, but as if gracefully recognizing the desire of mother and son to be alone together; but Amherst, rising also, made a motion to detain her.

“No one else will be able to put your reasons half so convincingly,” he said with a slight smile, “and I am sure my mother would much rather be spared the attempt.”

Mrs. Ansell met the smile as freely as she had met the challenge. “My dear Lucy,” she rejoined, laying, as she reseated herself, a light caress on Mrs. Amherst’s hand, “I’m sorry to be flattered at your expense, but it’s not in human nature to resist such an appeal. You see,” she added, raising her eyes to Amherst, “how sure I am of myself — and of you, when you’ve heard me.”

“Oh, John is always ready to hear one,” his mother murmured innocently.

“Well, I don’t know that I shall even ask him to do as much as that — I’m so sure, after all, that my suggestion carries its explanation with it.”

There was a moment’s pause, during which Amherst let his eyes wander absently over the dissolving groups on the lawn.

“The suggestion that I should take Bessy to Europe?” He paused again. “When — next autumn?”

“No: now — at once. On a long honeymoon.”

He frowned slightly at the last word, passing it by to revert to the direct answer to his question.

“At once? No — I can’t see that the suggestion carries its explanation with it.”

Mrs. Ansell looked at him hesitatingly. She was conscious of the ill-chosen word that still reverberated between them, and the unwonted sense of having blundered made her, for the moment, less completely mistress of herself.

“Ah, you’ll see farther presently — ” She rose again, unfurling her lace sunshade, as if to give a touch of definiteness to her action. “It’s not, after all,” she added, with a sweet frankness, “a case for argument, and still less for persuasion. My reasons are excellent — I should insist on putting them to you myself if they were not! But they’re so good that I can leave you to find them out — and to back them up with your own, which will probably be a great deal better.”

She summed up with a light nod, which included both Amherst and his mother, and turning to descend the verandah steps, waved a signal to Mr. Langhope, who was limping disconsolately toward the house.

“What has she been saying to you, mother?” Amherst asked, returning to his seat beside his mother.

Mrs. Amherst replied by a shake of her head and a raised forefinger of reproval. “Now, Johnny, I won’t answer a single question till you smooth out those lines between your eyes.”

Her son relaxed his frown to smile back at her. “Well, dear, there have to be some wrinkles in every family, and as you absolutely refuse to take your share — ” His eyes rested affectionately on the frosty sparkle of her charming old face, which had, in its setting of recovered prosperity, the freshness of a sunny winter morning, when the very snow gives out a suggestion of warmth.

He remembered how, on the evening of his dismissal from the mills, he had paused on the threshold of their sitting-room to watch her a moment in the lamplight, and had thought with bitter compunction of the fresh wrinkle he was about to add to the lines about her eyes. The three years which followed had effaced that wrinkle and veiled the others in a tardy bloom of well-being. From the moment of turning her back on Westmore, and establishing herself in the pretty little house at Hanaford which her son’s wife had placed at her disposal, Mrs. Amherst had shed all traces of the difficult years; and the fact that his marriage had enabled him to set free, before it was too late, the pent-up springs of her youthfulness, sometimes seemed to Amherst the clearest gain in his life’s confused total of profit and loss. It was, at any rate, the sense of Bessy’s share in the change that softened his voice when he spoke of her to his mother.

“Now, then, if I present a sufficiently unruffled surface, let us go back to Mrs. Ansell — for I confess that her mysterious reasons are not yet apparent to me.”

Mrs. Amherst looked deprecatingly at her son. “Maria Ansell is devoted to you too, John —— ”

“Of course she is! It’s her rôle to be devoted to everybody — especially to her enemies.”

“Her enemies?”

“Oh, I didn’t intend any personal application. But why does she want me to take Bessy abroad?”

“She and Mr. Langhope think that Bessy is not looking well.”

Amherst paused, and the frown showed itself for a moment. “What do you think, mother?”

“I hadn’t noticed it myself: Bessy seems to me prettier than ever. But perhaps she has less colour — and she complains of not sleeping. Maria thinks she still frets over the baby.”

Amherst made an impatient gesture. “Is Europe the only panacea?”

“You should consider, John, that Bessy is used to change and amusement. I think you sometimes forget that other people haven’t your faculty of absorbing themselves in a single interest. And Maria says that the new doctor at Clifton, whom they seem to think so clever, is very anxious that Bessy should go to Europe this summer.”

“No doubt; and so is every one else: I mean her father and old Tredegar — and your friend Mrs. Ansell not least.”

Mrs. Amherst lifted her bright black eyes to his. “Well, then — if they all think she needs it —— ”

“Good heavens, if travel were what she needed! — Why, we’ve never stopped travelling since we married. We’ve been everywhere on the globe except at Hanaford — this is her second visit here in three years!” He rose and took a rapid turn across the deserted verandah. “It’s not because her health requires it — it’s to get me away from Westmore, to prevent things being done there that ought to be done!” he broke out vehemently, halting again before his mother.

The aged pink faded from Mrs. Amherst’s face, but her eyes retained their lively glitter. “To prevent things being done? What a strange thing to say!”

“I shouldn’t have said it if I hadn’t seen you falling under Mrs. Ansell’s spell.”

His mother had a gesture which showed from whom he had inherited his impulsive movements. “Really, my son —!” She folded her hands, and added after a pause of self-recovery: “If you mean that I have ever attempted to interfere —— ”

“No, no: but when they pervert things so damnably —— ”

“John!”

He dropped into his chair again, and pushed the hair from his forehead with a groan.

“Well, then — put it that they have as much right to their view as I have: I only want you to see what it is. Whenever I try to do anything at Westmore — to give a real start to the work that Bessy and I planned together — some pretext is found to stop it: to pack us off to the ends of the earth, to cry out against reducing her income, to encourage her in some new extravagance to which the work at the mills must be sacrificed!”

Mrs. Amherst, growing pale under this outbreak, assured herself by a nervous backward glance that their privacy was still uninvaded; then her eyes returned to her son’s face.

“John — are you sure you’re not sacrificing your wife to the mills?”

He grew pale in turn, and they looked at each other for a moment without speaking.

“You see it as they do, then?” he rejoined with a discouraged sigh.

“I see it as any old woman would, who had my experiences to look back to.”

“Mother!” he exclaimed.

She smiled composedly. “Do you think I mean that as a reproach? That’s because men will never understand women — least of all, sons their mothers. No real mother wants to come first; she puts her son’s career ahead of everything. But it’s different with a wife — and a wife as much in love as Bessy.”

Amherst looked away. “I should have thought that was a reason —— ”

“That would reconcile her to being set aside, to counting only second in your plans?”

“They were her plans when we married!”

“Ah, my dear —!” She paused on that, letting her shrewd old glance, and all the delicate lines of experience in her face, supply what farther comment the ineptitude of his argument invited.

He took the full measure of her meaning, receiving it in a baffled silence that continued as she rose and gathered her lace mantle about her, as if to signify that their confidences could not, on such an occasion, be farther prolonged without singularity. Then he stood up also and joined her, resting his hand on hers while she leaned on the verandah rail.

“Poor mother! And I’ve kept you to myself all this time, and spoiled your good afternoon.”

“No, dear; I was a little tired, and had slipped away to be quiet.” She paused, and then went on, persuasively giving back his pressure: “I know how you feel about doing your duty, John; but now that things are so comfortably settled, isn’t it a pity to unsettle them?”

Amherst had intended, on leaving his mother, to rejoin Bessy, whom he could still discern, on the lawn, in absorbed communion with Miss Brent; but after what had passed it seemed impossible, for the moment, to recover the garden-party tone, and he made his escape through the house while a trio of Cuban singers, who formed the crowning number of the entertainment, gathered the company in a denser circle about their guitars.

As he walked on aimlessly under the deep June shadows of Maplewood Avenue his mother’s last words formed an ironical accompaniment to his thoughts. “Now that things are comfortably settled — ” he knew so well what that elastic epithet covered! Himself, for instance, ensconced in the impenetrable prosperity of his wonderful marriage; herself too (unconsciously, dear soul!), so happily tucked away in a cranny of that new and spacious life, and no more able to conceive why existing conditions should be disturbed than the bird in the eaves understands why the house should be torn down. Well — he had learned at last what his experience with his poor, valiant, puzzled mother might have taught him: that one must never ask from women any view but the personal one, any measure of conduct but that of their own pains and pleasures. She, indeed, had borne undauntedly enough the brunt of their earlier trials; but that was merely because, as she said, the mother’s instinct bade her heap all her private hopes on the great devouring altar of her son’s ambition; it was not because she had ever, in the very least, understood or sympathized with his aims.

And Bessy —? Perhaps if their little son had lived she might in turn have obeyed the world-old instinct of self-effacement — but now! He remembered with an intenser self-derision that, not even in the first surprise of his passion, had he deluded himself with the idea that Bessy Westmore was an exception to her sex. He had argued rather that, being only a lovelier product of the common mould, she would abound in the adaptabilities and pliancies which the lords of the earth have seen fit to cultivate in their companions. She would care for his aims because they were his. During their precipitate wooing, and through the first brief months of marriage, this profound and original theory had been gratifyingly confirmed; then its perfect surface had begun to show a flaw. Amherst had always conveniently supposed that the poet’s line summed up the good woman’s rule of ethics: He for God only, she for God in him. It was for the god in him, surely, that she had loved him: for that first glimpse of an “ampler ether, a diviner air” that he had brought into her cramped and curtained life. He could never, now, evoke that earlier delusion without feeling on its still-tender surface the keen edge of Mrs. Ansell’s smile. She, no doubt, could have told him at any time why Bessy had married him: it was for his beaux yeux, as Mrs. Ansell would have put it — because he was young, handsome, persecuted, an ardent lover if not a subtle one — because Bessy had met him at the fatal moment, because her family had opposed the marriage — because, in brief, the gods, that day, may have been a little short of amusement. Well, they were having their laugh out now — there were moments when high heaven seemed to ring with it. . . .

With these thoughts at his heels Amherst strode on, overtaken now and again by the wheels of departing guests from the garden-party, and knowing, as they passed him, what was in their minds — envy of his success, admiration of his cleverness in achieving it, and a little half-contemptuous pity for his wife, who, with her wealth and looks, might have done so much better. Certainly, if the case could have been put to Hanaford — the Hanaford of the Gaines garden-party — it would have sided with Bessy to a voice. And how much justice was there in what he felt would have been the unanimous verdict of her class? Was his mother right in hinting that he was sacrificing Bessy to the mills? But the mills were Bessy — at least he had thought so when he married her! They were her particular form of contact with life, the expression of her relation to her fellow-men, her pretext, her opportunity — unless they were merely a vast purse in which to plunge for her pin-money! He had fancied it would rest with him to determine from which of these stand-points she should view Westmore; and at the outset she had enthusiastically viewed it from his. In her eager adoption of his ideas she had made a pet of the mills, organizing the Mothers’ Club, laying out a recreation-ground on the Hopewood property, and playing with pretty plans in water-colour for the Emergency Hospital and the building which was to contain the night-schools, library and gymnasium; but even these minor projects — which he had urged her to take up as a means of learning their essential dependence on his larger scheme — were soon to be set aside by obstacles of a material order. Bessy always wanted money — not a great deal, but, as she reasonably put it, “enough” — and who was to blame if her father and Mr. Tredegar, each in his different capacity, felt obliged to point out that every philanthropic outlay at Westmore must entail a corresponding reduction in her income? Perhaps if she could have been oftener at Hanaford these arguments would have been counteracted, for she was tender-hearted, and prompt to relieve such suffering as she saw about her; but her imagination was not active, and it was easy for her to forget painful sights when they were not under her eye. This was perhaps — half-consciously — one of the reasons why she avoided Hanaford; why, as Amherst exclaimed, they had been everywhere since their marriage but to the place where their obligations called them. There had, at any rate, always been some good excuse for not returning there, and consequently for postponing the work of improvement which, it was generally felt, her husband could not fitly begin till she had returned and gone over the ground with him. After their marriage, and especially in view of the comment excited by that romantic incident, it was impossible not to yield to her wish that they should go abroad for a few months; then, before her confinement, the doctors had exacted that she should be spared all fatigue and worry; and after the baby’s death Amherst had felt with her too tenderly to venture an immediate return to unwelcome questions.

For by this time it had become clear to him that such questions were, and always would be, unwelcome to her. As the easiest means of escaping them, she had once more dismissed the whole problem to the vague and tiresome sphere of “business,” whence he had succeeded in detaching it for a moment in the early days of their union. Her first husband — poor unappreciated Westmore! — had always spared her the boredom of “business,” and Halford Gaines and Mr. Tredegar were ready to show her the same consideration; it was part of the modern code of chivalry that lovely woman should not be bothered about ways and means. But Bessy was too much the wife — and the wife in love — to consent that her husband’s views on the management of the mills should be totally disregarded. Precisely because her advisers looked unfavourably on his intervention, she felt bound — if only in defense of her illusions — to maintain and emphasize it. The mills were, in fact, the official “platform” on which she had married: Amherst’s devoted rôle at Westmore had justified the unconventionality of the step. And so she was committed — the more helplessly for her dense misintelligence of both sides of the question — to the policy of conciliating the opposing influences which had so uncomfortably chosen to fight out their case on the field of her poor little existence: theoretically siding with her husband, but surreptitiously, as he well knew, giving aid and comfort to the enemy, who were really defending her own cause.

All this Amherst saw with that cruel insight which had replaced his former blindness. He was, in truth, more ashamed of the insight than of the blindness: it seemed to him horribly cold-blooded to be thus analyzing, after two years of marriage, the source of his wife’s inconsistencies. And, partly for this reason, he had put off from month to month the final question of the future management of the mills, and of the radical changes to be made there if his system were to prevail. But the time had come when, if Bessy had to turn to Westmore for the justification of her marriage, he had even more need of calling upon it for the same service. He had not, assuredly, married her because of Westmore; but he would scarcely have contemplated marriage with a rich woman unless the source of her wealth had offered him some such opportunity as Westmore presented. His special training, and the natural bent of his mind, qualified him, in what had once seemed a predestined manner, to help Bessy to use her power nobly, for her own uplifting as well as for that of Westmore; and so the mills became, incongruously enough, the plank of safety to which both clung in their sense of impending disaster.

It was not that Amherst feared the temptation to idleness if this outlet for his activity were cut off. He had long since found that the luxury with which his wife surrounded him merely quickened his natural bent for hard work and hard fare. He recalled with a touch of bitterness how he had once regretted having separated himself from his mother’s class, and how seductive for a moment, to both mind and senses, that other life had appeared. Well — he knew it now, and it had neither charm nor peril for him. Capua must have been a dull place to one who had once drunk the joy of battle. What he dreaded was not that he should learn to love the life of ease, but that he should grow to loathe it uncontrollably, as the symbol of his mental and spiritual bondage. And Westmore was his safety-valve, his refuge — if he were cut off from Westmore what remained to him? It was not only the work he had found to his hand, but the one work for which his hand was fitted. It was his life that he was fighting for in insisting that now at last, before the close of this long-deferred visit to Hanaford, the question of the mills should be faced and settled. He had made that clear to Bessy, in a scene he still shrank from recalling; for it was of the essence of his somewhat unbending integrity that he would not trick her into a confused surrender to the personal influence he still possessed over her, but must seek to convince her by the tedious process of argument and exposition, against which she knew no defense but tears and petulance. But he had, at any rate, gained her consent to his setting forth his views at the meeting of directors the next morning; and meanwhile he had meant to be extraordinarily patient and reasonable with her, till the hint of Mrs. Ansell’s stratagem produced in him a fresh reaction of distrust.

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