Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XIV

JUSTINE BRENT, her household duties discharged, had gone upstairs to her room, a little turret chamber projecting above the wide terrace below, from which the sounds of lively intercourse now rose increasingly to her window.

Bessy, she knew, would have preferred to have her remain with the party from whom these evidences of gaiety proceeded. Mrs. Amherst had grown to depend on her friend’s nearness. She liked to feel that Justine’s quick hand and eye were always in waiting on her impulses, prompt to interpret and execute them without any exertion of her own. Bessy combined great zeal in the pursuit of sport — a tireless passion for the saddle, the golf-course, the tennis-court — with an almost oriental inertia within doors, an indolence of body and brain that made her shrink from the active obligations of hospitality, though she had grown to depend more and more on the distractions of a crowded house.

But Justine, though grateful, and anxious to show her gratitude, was unwilling to add to her other duties that of joining in the amusements of the house-party. She made no pretense of effacing herself when she thought her presence might be useful — but, even if she had cared for the diversions in favour at Lynbrook, a certain unavowed pride would have kept her from participating in them on the same footing with Bessy’s guests. She was not in the least ashamed of her position in the household, but she chose that every one else should be aware of it, that she should not for an instant be taken for one of the nomadic damsels who form the camp-followers of the great army of pleasure. Yet even on this point her sensitiveness was not exaggerated. Adversity has a deft hand at gathering loose strands of impulse into character, and Justine’s early contact with different phases of experience had given her a fairly clear view of life in the round, what might be called a sound working topography of its relative heights and depths. She was not seriously afraid of being taken for anything but what she really was, and still less did she fear to become, by force of propinquity and suggestion, the kind of being for whom she might be temporarily taken.

When, at Bessy’s summons, she had joined the latter at her camp in the Adirondacks, the transition from a fatiguing “case” at Hanaford to a life in which sylvan freedom was artfully blent with the most studied personal luxury, had come as a delicious refreshment to body and brain. She was weary, for the moment, of ugliness, pain and hard work, and life seemed to recover its meaning under the aspect of a graceful leisure. Lynbrook also, whither she had been persuaded to go with Bessy at the end of their woodland cure, had at first amused and interested her. The big house on its spreading terraces, with windows looking over bright gardens to the hazy distances of the plains, seemed a haven of harmless ease and gaiety. Justine was sensitive to the finer graces of luxurious living, to the warm lights on old pictures and bronzes, the soft mingling of tints in faded rugs and panellings of time-warmed oak. And the existence to which this background formed a setting seemed at first to have the same decorative qualities. It was pleasant, for once, to be among people whose chief business was to look well and take life lightly, and Justine’s own buoyancy of nature won her immediate access among the amiable persons who peopled Bessy’s week-end parties. If they had only abounded a little more in their own line she might have succumbed to their spell. But it seemed to her that they missed the poetry of their situation, transacting their pleasures with the dreary method and shortness of view of a race tethered to the ledger. Even the verbal flexibility which had made her feel that she was in a world of freer ideas, soon revealed itself as a form of flight from them, in which the race was distinctly to the swift; and Justine’s phase of passive enjoyment passed with the return of her physical and mental activity. She was a creature tingling with energy, a little fleeting particle of the power that moves the sun and the other stars, and the deadening influences of the life at Lynbrook roused these tendencies to greater intensity, as a suffocated person will suddenly develop abnormal strength in the struggle for air.

She did not, indeed, regret having come. She was glad to be with Bessy, partly because of the childish friendship which had left such deep traces in her lonely heart, and partly because what she had seen of her friend’s situation stirred in her all the impulses of sympathy and service; but the idea of continuing in such a life, of sinking into any of the positions of semi-dependence that an adroit and handsome girl may create for herself in a fashionable woman’s train — this possibility never presented itself to Justine till Mrs. Ansell, that afternoon, had put it into words. And to hear it was to revolt from it with all the strength of her inmost nature. The thought of the future troubled her, not so much materially — for she had a light bird-like trust in the morrow’s fare — but because her own tendencies seemed to have grown less clear, because she could not rest in them for guidance as she had once done. The renewal of bodily activity had not brought back her faith in her calling: her work had lost the light of consecration. She no longer felt herself predestined to nurse the sick for the rest of her life, and in her inexperience she reproached herself with this instability. Youth and womanhood were in fact crying out in her for their individual satisfaction; but instincts as deep-seated protected her from even a momentary illusion as to the nature of this demand. She wanted happiness, and a life of her own, as passionately as young flesh-and-blood had ever wanted them; but they must come bathed in the light of imagination and penetrated by the sense of larger affinities. She could not conceive of shutting herself into a little citadel of personal well-being while the great tides of existence rolled on unheeded outside. Whether they swept treasure to her feet, or strewed her life with wreckage, she felt, even now; that her place was there, on the banks, in sound and sight of the great current; and just in proportion as the scheme of life at Lynbrook succeeded in shutting out all sense of that vaster human consciousness, so did its voice speak more thrillingly within her.

Somewhere, she felt — but, alas! still out of reach — was the life she longed for, a life in which high chances of doing should be mated with the finer forms of enjoying. But what title had she to a share in such an existence? Why, none but her sense of what it was worth — and what did that count for, in a world which used all its resources to barricade itself against all its opportunities? She knew there were girls who sought, by what is called a “good” marriage, an escape into the outer world, of doing and thinking — utilizing an empty brain and full pocket as the key to these envied fields. Some such chance the life at Lynbrook seemed likely enough to offer — one is not, at Justine’s age and with her penetration, any more blind to the poise of one’s head than to the turn of one’s ideas; but here the subtler obstacles of taste and pride intervened. Not even Bessy’s transparent manoeuvrings, her tender solicitude for her friend’s happiness, could for a moment weaken Justine’s resistance. If she must marry without love — and this was growing conceivable to her — she must at least merge her craving for personal happiness in some view of life in harmony with hers.

A tap on her door interrupted these musings, to one aspect of which Bessy Amherst’s entrance seemed suddenly to give visible expression.

“Why did you run off, Justine? You promised to be down-stairs when I came back from tennis.”

Till you came back — wasn’t it, dear?” Justine corrected with a smile, pushing her arm-chair forward as Bessy continued to linger irresolutely in the doorway. “I saw that there was a fresh supply of tea in the drawing-room, and I knew you would be there before the omnibus came from the station.”

“Oh, I was there — but everybody was asking for you —— ”

“Everybody?” Justine gave a mocking lift to her dark eyebrows.

“Well — Westy Gaines, at any rate; the moment he set foot in the house!” Bessy declared with a laugh as she dropped into the arm-chair.

Justine echoed the laugh, but offered no comment on the statement which accompanied it, and for a moment both women were silent, Bessy tilting her pretty discontented head against the back of the chair, so that her eyes were on a level with those of her friend, who leaned near her in the embrasure of the window.

“I can’t understand you, Justine. You know well enough what he’s come back for.”

“In order to dazzle Hanaford with the fact that he has been staying at Lynbrook!”

“Nonsense — the novelty of that has worn off. He’s been here three times since we came back.”

“You are admirably hospitable to your family —— ”

Bessy let her pretty ringed hands fall with a discouraged gesture. “Why do you find him so much worse than — than other people?”

Justine’s eye-brows rose again. “In the same capacity? You speak as if I had boundless opportunities of comparison.”

“Well, you’ve Dr. Wyant!” Mrs. Amherst suddenly flung back at her.

Justine coloured under the unexpected thrust, but met her friend’s eyes steadily. “As an alternative to Westy? Well, if I were on a desert island — but I’m not!” she concluded with a careless laugh.

Bessy frowned and sighed. “You can’t mean that, of the two —?” She paused and then went on doubtfully: “It’s because he’s cleverer?”

“Dr. Wyant?” Justine smiled. “It’s not making an enormous claim for him!”

“Oh, I know Westy’s not brilliant; but stupid men are not always the hardest to live with.” She sighed again, and turned on Justine a glance charged with conjugal experience.

Justine had sunk into the window-seat, her thin hands clasping her knee, in the attitude habitual to her meditative moments. “Perhaps not,” she assented; “but I don’t know that I should care for a man who made life easy; I should want some one who made it interesting.”

Bessy met this with a pitying exclamation. “Don’t imagine you invented that! Every girl thinks it. Afterwards she finds out that it’s much pleasanter to be thought interesting herself.”

She spoke with a bitterness that issued strangely from her lips. It was this bitterness which gave her soft personality the sharp edge that Justine had felt in it on the day of their meeting at Hanaford.

The girl, at first, had tried to defend herself from these scarcely-veiled confidences, distasteful enough in themselves, and placing her, if she listened, in an attitude of implied disloyalty to the man under whose roof they were spoken. But a precocious experience of life had taught her that emotions too strong for the nature containing them turn, by some law of spiritual chemistry, into a rankling poison; and she had therefore resigned herself to serving as a kind of outlet for Bessy’s pent-up discontent. It was not that her friend’s grievance appealed to her personal sympathies; she had learned enough of the situation to give her moral assent unreservedly to the other side. But it was characteristic of Justine that where she sympathized least she sometimes pitied most. Like all quick spirits she was often intolerant of dulness; yet when the intolerance passed it left a residue of compassion for the very incapacity at which she chafed. It seemed to her that the tragic crises in wedded life usually turned on the stupidity of one of the two concerned; and of the two victims of such a catastrophe she felt most for the one whose limitations had probably brought it about. After all, there could be no imprisonment as cruel as that of being bounded by a hard small nature. Not to be penetrable at all points to the shifting lights, the wandering music of the world — she could imagine no physical disability as cramping as that. How the little parched soul, in solitary confinement for life, must pine and dwindle in its blind cranny of self-love!

To be one’s self wide open to the currents of life does not always contribute to an understanding of narrower natures; but in Justine the personal emotions were enriched and deepened by a sense of participation in all that the world about her was doing, suffering and enjoying; and this sense found expression in the instinct of ministry and solace. She was by nature a redresser, a restorer; and in her work, as she had once told Amherst, the longing to help and direct, to hasten on by personal intervention time’s slow and clumsy processes, had often been in conflict with the restrictions imposed by her profession. But she had no idle desire to probe the depths of other lives; and where there seemed no hope of serving she shrank from fruitless confidences. She was beginning to feel this to be the case with Bessy Amherst. To touch the rock was not enough, if there were but a few drops within it; yet in this barrenness lay the pathos of the situation — and after all, may not the scanty spring be fed from a fuller current?

“I’m not sure about that,” she said, answering her friend’s last words after a deep pause of deliberation. “I mean about its being so pleasant to be found interesting. I’m sure the passive part is always the dull one: life has been a great deal more thrilling since we found out that we revolved about the sun, instead of sitting still and fancying that all the planets were dancing attendance on us. After all, they were not; and it’s rather humiliating to think how the morning stars must have laughed together about it!”

There was no self-complacency in Justine’s eagerness to help. It was far easier for her to express it in action than in counsel, to grope for the path with her friend than to point the way to it; and when she had to speak she took refuge in figures to escape the pedantry of appearing to advise. But it was not only to Mrs. Dressel that her parables were dark, and the blank look in Bessy’s eyes soon snatched her down from the height of metaphor.

“I mean,” she continued with a smile, “that, as human nature is constituted, it has got to find its real self — the self to be interested in — outside of what we conventionally call ‘self’: the particular Justine or Bessy who is clamouring for her particular morsel of life. You see, self isn’t a thing one can keep in a box — bits of it keep escaping, and flying off to lodge in all sorts of unexpected crannies; we come across scraps of ourselves in the most unlikely places — as I believe you would in Westmore, if you’d only go back there and look for them!”

Bessy’s lip trembled and the colour sprang to her face; but she answered with a flash of irritation: “Why doesn’t he look for me there, then — if he still wants to find me?”

“Ah — it’s for him to look here — to find himself here,” Justine murmured.

“Well, he never comes here! That’s his answer.”

“He will — he will! Only, when he does, let him find you.”

“Find me? I don’t understand. How can he, when he never sees me? I’m no more to him than the carpet on the floor!”

Justine smiled again. “Well — be that then! The thing is to be.”

“Under his feet? Thank you! Is that what you mean to marry for? It’s not what husbands admire in one, you know!”

“No.” Justine stood up with a sense of stealing discouragement. “But I don’t think I want to be admired —— ”

“Ah, that’s because you know you are!” broke from the depths of the other’s bitterness.

The tone smote Justine, and she dropped into the seat at her friend’s side, silently laying a hand on Bessy’s feverishly-clasped fingers.

“Oh, don’t let us talk about me,” complained the latter, from whose lips the subject was never long absent. “And you mustn’t think I want you to marry, Justine; not for myself, I mean — I’d so much rather keep you here. I feel much less lonely when you’re with me. But you say you won’t stay — and it’s too dreadful to think of your going back to that dreary hospital.”

“But you know the hospital’s not dreary to me,” Justine interposed; “it’s the most interesting place I’ve ever known.”

Mrs. Amherst smiled indulgently on this extravagance. “A great many people go through the craze for philanthropy — ” she began in the tone of mature experience; but Justine interrupted her with a laugh.

“Philanthropy? I’m not philanthropic. I don’t think I ever felt inclined to do good in the abstract — any more than to do ill! I can’t remember that I ever planned out a course of conduct in my life. It’s only,” she went on, with a puzzled frown, as if honestly trying to analyze her motives, “it’s only that I’m so fatally interested in people that before I know it I’ve slipped into their skins; and then, of course, if anything goes wrong with them, it’s just as if it had gone wrong with me; and I can’t help trying to rescue myself from their troubles! I suppose it’s what you’d call meddling — and so should I, if I could only remember that the other people were not myself!”

Bessy received this with the mild tolerance of superior wisdom. Once safe on the tried ground of traditional authority, she always felt herself Justine’s superior. “That’s all very well now — you see the romantic side of it,” she said, as if humouring her friend’s vagaries. “But in time you’ll want something else; you’ll want a husband and children — a life of your own. And then you’ll have to be more practical. It’s ridiculous to pretend that comfort and money don’t make a difference. And if you married a rich man, just think what a lot of good you could do! Westy will be very well off — and I’m sure he’d let you endow hospitals and things. Think how interesting it would be to build a ward in the very hospital where you’d been a nurse! I read something like that in a novel the other day — it was beautifully described. All the nurses and doctors that the heroine had worked with were there to receive her . . . and her little boy went about and gave toys to the crippled children. . . . ”

If the speaker’s concluding instance hardly produced the effect she had intended, it was perhaps only because Justine’s attention had been arrested by the earlier part of the argument. It was strange to have marriage urged on her by a woman who had twice failed to find happiness in it — strange, and yet how vivid a sign that, even to a nature absorbed in its personal demands, not happiness but completeness is the inmost craving! “A life of your own” — that was what even Bessy, in her obscure way, felt to be best worth suffering for. And how was a spirit like Justine’s, thrilling with youth and sympathy, to conceive of an isolated existence as the final answer to that craving? A life circumscribed by one’s own poor personal consciousness would not be life at all — far better the “adventure of the diver” than the shivering alone on the bank! Bessy, reading encouragement in her silence, returned her hand-clasp with an affectionate pressure.

“You would like that, Justine?” she said, secretly proud of having hit on the convincing argument.

“To endow hospitals with your cousin’s money? No; I should want something much more exciting!”

Bessy’s face kindled. “You mean travelling abroad — and I suppose New York in winter?”

Justine broke into a laugh. “I was thinking of your cousin himself when I spoke.” And to Bessy’s disappointed cry — “Then it is Dr. Wyant, after all?” she answered lightly, and without resenting the challenge: “I don’t know. Suppose we leave it to the oracle.”

“The oracle?”

“Time. His question-and-answer department is generally the most reliable in the long run.” She started up, gently drawing Bessy to her feet. “And just at present he reminds me that it’s nearly six, and that you promised Cicely to go and see her before you dress for dinner.”

Bessy rose obediently. “Does he remind you of your promises too? You said you’d come down to dinner tonight.”

“Did I?” Justine hesitated. “Well, I’m coming,” she said, smiling and kissing her friend.

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