Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XIII

MRS. ANSELL was engaged in what she called picking up threads. She had been abroad for the summer — had, in, fact, transferred herself but a few hours earlier from her returning steamer to the little station at Lynbrook — and was now, in the bright September afternoon, which left her in sole possession of the terrace of Lynbrook House, using that pleasant eminence as a point of observation from which to gather up some of the loose ends of history dropped at her departure.

It might have been thought that the actual scene out-spread below her — the descending gardens, the tennis-courts, the farm-lands sloping away to the blue sea-like shimmer of the Hempstead plains — offered, at the moment, little material for her purpose; but that was to view them with a superficial eye. Mrs. Ansell’s trained gaze was, for example, greatly enlightened by the fact that the tennis-courts were fringed by a group of people indolently watchful of the figures agitating themselves about the nets; and that, as she turned her head toward the entrance avenue, the receding view of a station omnibus, followed by a luggage-cart, announced that more guests were to be added to those who had almost taxed to its limits the expansibility of the luncheon-table.

All this, to the initiated eye, was full of suggestion; but its significance was as nothing to that presented by the approach of two figures which, as Mrs. Ansell watched, detached themselves from the cluster about the tennis-ground and struck, obliquely and at a desultory pace, across the lawn toward the terrace. The figures — those of a slight young man with stooping shoulders, and of a lady equally youthful but slenderly erect — moved forward in absorbed communion, as if unconscious of their surroundings and indefinite as to their direction, till, on the brink of the wide grass terrace just below their observer’s parapet, they paused a moment and faced each other in closer speech. This interchange of words, though brief in measure of time, lasted long enough to add a vivid strand to Mrs. Ansell’s thickening skein; then, on a gesture of the lady’s, and without signs of formal leave-taking, the young man struck into a path which regained the entrance avenue, while his companion, quickening her pace, crossed the grass terrace and mounted the wide stone steps sweeping up to the house.

These brought her out on the upper terrace a few yards from Mrs. Ansell’s post, and exposed her, unprepared, to the full beam of welcome which that lady’s rapid advance threw like a searchlight across her path.

“Dear Miss Brent! I was just wondering how it was that I hadn’t seen you before.” Mrs. Ansell, as she spoke, drew the girl’s hand into a long soft clasp which served to keep them confronted while she delicately groped for whatever thread the encounter seemed to proffer.

Justine made no attempt to evade the scrutiny to which she found herself exposed; she merely released her hand by a movement instinctively evasive of the mechanical endearment, explaining, with a smile that softened the gesture: “I was out with Cicely when you arrived. We’ve just come in.”

“The dear child! I haven’t seen her either.” Mrs. Ansell continued to bestow upon the speaker’s clear dark face an intensity of attention in which, for the moment, Cicely had no perceptible share. “I hear you are teaching her botany, and all kinds of wonderful things.”

Justine smiled again. “I am trying to teach her to wonder: that is the hardest faculty to cultivate in the modern child.”

“Yes — I suppose so; in myself,” Mrs. Ansell admitted with a responsive brightness, “I find it develops with age. The world is a remarkable place.” She threw this off absently, as though leaving Miss Brent to apply it either to the inorganic phenomena with which Cicely was supposed to be occupied, or to those subtler manifestations that engaged her own attention.

“It’s a great thing,” she continued, “for Bessy to have had your help — for Cicely, and for herself too. There is so much that I want you to tell me about her. As an old friend I want the benefit of your fresher eye.”

“About Bessy?” Justine hesitated, letting her glance drift to the distant group still anchored about the tennis-nets. “Don’t you find her looking better?”

“Than when I left? So much so that I was unduly disturbed, just now, by seeing that clever little doctor — it was he, wasn’t it, who came up the lawn with you?”

“Dr. Wyant? Yes.” Miss Brent hesitated again. “But he merely called — with a message.”

“Not professionally? Tant mieux! The truth is, I was anxious about Bessy when I left — I thought she ought to have gone abroad for a change. But, as it turns out, her little excursion with you did as well.”

“I think she only needed rest. Perhaps her six weeks in the Adirondacks were better than Europe.”

“Ah, under your care — that made them better!” Mrs. Ansell in turn hesitated, the lines of her face melting and changing as if a rapid stage-hand had shifted them. When she spoke again they were as open as a public square, but also as destitute of personal significance, as flat and smooth as the painted drop before the real scene it hides.

“I have always thought that Bessy, for all her health and activity, needs as much care as Cicely — the kind of care a clever friend can give. She is so wasteful of her strength and her nerves, and so unwilling to listen to reason. Poor Dick Westmore watched over her as if she were a baby; but perhaps Mr. Amherst, who must have been used to such a different type of woman, doesn’t realize . . . and then he’s so little here. . . . ” The drop was lit up by a smile that seemed to make it more impenetrable. “As an old friend I can’t help telling you how much I hope she is to have you with her for a long time — a long, long time.”

Miss Brent bent her head in slight acknowledgment of the tribute. “Oh, soon she will not need any care —— ”

“My dear Miss Brent, she will always need it!” Mrs. Ansell made a movement inviting the young girl to share the bench from which, at the latter’s approach, she had risen. “But perhaps there is not enough in such a life to satisfy your professional energies.”

She seated herself, and after an imperceptible pause Justine sank into the seat beside her. “I am very glad, just now, to give my energies a holiday,” she said, leaning back with a little sigh of retrospective weariness.

“You are tired too? Bessy wrote me you had been quite used up by a trying case after we saw you at Hanaford.”

Miss Brent smiled. “When a nurse is fit for work she calls a trying case a ‘beautiful’ one.”

“But meanwhile —?” Mrs. Ansell shone on her with elder-sisterly solicitude. “Meanwhile, why not stay on with Cicely — above all, with Bessy? Surely she’s a ‘beautiful’ case too.”

“Isn’t she?” Justine laughingly agreed.

“And if you want to be tried — ” Mrs. Ansell swept the scene with a slight lift of her philosophic shoulders — “you’ll find there are trials enough everywhere.”

Her companion started up with a glance at the small watch on her breast. “One of them is that it’s already after four, and that I must see that tea is sent down to the tennis-ground, and the new arrivals looked after.”

“I saw the omnibus on its way to the station. Are many more people coming?”

“Five or six, I believe. The house is usually full for Sunday.”

Mrs. Ansell made a slight motion to detain her. “And when is Mr. Amherst expected?”

Miss Brent’s pale cheek seemed to take on a darker tone of ivory, and her glance dropped from her companion’s face to the vivid stretch of gardens at their feet. “Bessy has not told me,” she said.

“Ah — ” the older woman rejoined, looking also toward the gardens, as if to intercept Miss Brent’s glance in its flight. The latter stood still a moment, with the appearance of not wishing to evade whatever else her companion might have to say; then she moved away, entering the house by one window just as Mr. Langhope emerged from it by another.

The sound of his stick tapping across the bricks roused Mrs. Ansell from her musings, but she showed her sense of his presence simply by returning to the bench she had just left; and accepting this mute invitation, Mr. Langhope crossed the terrace and seated himself at her side.

When he had done so they continued to look at each other without speaking, after the manner of old friends possessed of occult means of communication; and as the result of this inward colloquy Mr. Langhope at length said: “Well, what do you make of it?”

“What do you?” she rejoined, turning full upon him a face so released from its usual defences and disguises that it looked at once older and more simple than the countenance she presented to the world.

Mr. Langhope waved a deprecating hand. “I want your fresher impressions.”

“That’s what I just now said to Miss Brent.”

“You’ve been talking to Miss Brent?”

“Only a flying word — she had to go and look after the new arrivals.”

Mr. Langhope’s attention deepened. “Well, what did you say to her?”

“Wouldn’t you rather hear what she said to me?”

He smiled. “A good cross-examiner always gets the answers he wants. Let me hear your side, and I shall know hers.”

“I should say that applied only to stupid cross-examiners; or to those who have stupid subjects to deal with. And Miss Brent is not stupid, you know.”

“Far from it! What else do you make out?”

“I make out that she’s in possession.”

“Here?”

“Don’t look startled. Do you dislike her?”

“Heaven forbid — with those eyes! She has a wit of her own, too — and she certainly makes things easier for Bessy.”

“She guards her carefully, at any rate. I could find out nothing.”

“About Bessy?”

“About the general situation.”

“Including Miss Brent?”

Mrs. Ansell smiled faintly. “I made one little discovery about her.”

“Well?”

“She’s intimate with the new doctor.”

“Wyant?” Mr. Langhope’s interest dropped. “What of that? I believe she knew him before.”

“I daresay. It’s of no special importance, except as giving us a possible clue to her character. She strikes me as interesting and mysterious.”

Mr. Langhope smiled. “The things your imagination does for you!”

“It helps me to see that we may find Miss Brent useful as a friend.”

“A friend?”

“An ally.” She paused, as if searching for a word. “She may restore the equilibrium.”

Mr. Langhope’s handsome face darkened. “Open Bessy’s eyes to Amherst? Damn him!” he said quietly.

Mrs. Ansell let the imprecation pass. “When was he last here?” she asked.

“Five or six weeks ago — for one night. His only visit since she came back from the Adirondacks.”

“What do you think his motive is? He must know what he risks in losing his hold on Bessy.”

“His motive? With your eye for them, can you ask? A devouring ambition, that’s all! Haven’t you noticed that, in all except the biggest minds, ambition takes the form of wanting to command where one has had to obey? Amherst has been made to toe the line at Westmore, and now he wants Truscomb — yes, and Halford Gaines, too! — to do the same. That’s the secret of his servant-of-the-people pose — gad, I believe it’s the whole secret of his marriage! He’s devouring my daughter’s substance to pay off an old score against the mills. He’ll never rest till he has Truscomb out, and some creature of his own in command — and then, vogue la galère! If it were women, now,” Mr. Langhope summed up impatiently, “one could understand it, at his age, and with that damned romantic head — but to be put aside for a lot of low mongrelly socialist mill-hands — ah, my poor girl — my poor girl!”

Mrs. Ansell mused. “You didn’t write me that things were so bad. There’s been no actual quarrel?” she asked.

“How can there be, when the poor child does all he wants? He’s simply too busy to come and thank her!”

“Too busy at Hanaford?”

“So he says. Introducing the golden age at Westmore — it’s likely to be the age of copper at Lynbrook.”

Mrs. Ansell drew a meditative breath. “I was thinking of that. I understood that Bessy would have to retrench while the changes at Westmore were going on.”

“Well — didn’t she give up Europe, and cable over to countermand her new motor?”

“But the life here! This mob of people! Miss Brent tells me the house is full for every week-end.”

“Would you have my daughter cut off from all her friends?”

Mrs. Ansell met this promptly. “From some of the new ones, at any rate! Have you heard who has just arrived?”

Mr. Langhope’s hesitation showed a tinge of embarrassment. “I’m not sure — some one has always just arrived.”

“Well, the Fenton Carburys, then!” Mrs. Ansell left it to her tone to annotate the announcement.

Mr. Langhope raised his eyebrows slightly. “Are they likely to be an exceptionally costly pleasure?”

“If you’re trying to prove that I haven’t kept to the point — I can assure you that I’m well within it!”

“But since the good Blanche has got her divorce and married Carbury, wherein do they differ from other week-end automata?”

“Because most divorced women marry again to be respectable.”

Mr. Langhope smiled faintly. “Yes — that’s their punishment. But it would be too dull for Blanche.”

“Precisely. She married again to see Ned Bowfort!”

“Ah — that may yet be hers!”

Mrs. Ansell sighed at his perversity. “Meanwhile, she’s brought him here, and it is unnatural to see Bessy lending herself to such combinations.”

“You’re corrupted by a glimpse of the old societies. Here Bowfort and Carbury are simply hands at bridge.”

“Old hands at it — yes! And the bridge is another point: Bessy never used to play for money.”

“Well, she may make something, and offset her husband’s prodigalities.”

“There again — with this train de vie, how on earth are both ends to meet?”

Mr. Langhope grown suddenly grave, struck his cane resoundingly on the terrace. “Westmore and Lynbrook? I don’t want them to — I want them to get farther and farther apart!”

She cast on him a look of startled divination. “You want Bessy to go on spending too much money?”

“How can I help it if it costs?”

“If what costs —?” She stopped, her eyes still wide; then their glances crossed, and she exclaimed: “If your scheme costs? It is your scheme, then?”

He shrugged his shoulders again. “It’s a passive attitude —— ”

“Ah, the deepest plans are that!” Mr. Langhope uttered no protest, and she continued to piece her conjectures together. “But you expect it to lead up to something active. Do you want a rupture?”

“I want him brought back to his senses.”

“Do you think that will bring him back to her?”

“Where the devil else will he have to go?”

Mrs. Ansell’s eyes dropped toward the gardens, across which desultory knots of people were straggling back from the ended tennis-match. “Ah, here they all come,” she said, rising with a half-sigh; and as she stood watching the advance of the brightly-tinted groups she added slowly: “It’s ingenious — but you don’t understand him.”

Mr. Langhope stroked his moustache. “Perhaps not,” he assented thoughtfully. “But suppose we go in before they join us? I want to show you a set of Ming I picked up the other day for Bessy. I flatter myself I do understand Ming.”

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