Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XV

WHEN the door closed on Mrs. Amherst a resolve which had taken shape in Justine’s mind during their talk together made her seat herself at her writing-table, where, after a moment’s musing over her suspended pen, she wrote and addressed a hurried note. This business despatched, she put on her hat and jacket, and letter in hand passed down the corridor from her room, and descended to the entrance-hall below. She might have consigned her missive to the post-box which conspicuously tendered its services from a table near the door; but to do so would delay the letter’s despatch till morning, and she felt a sudden impatience to see it start.

The tumult on the terrace had transferred itself within doors, and as Justine went down the stairs she heard the click of cues from the billiard-room, the talk and laughter of belated bridge-players, the movement of servants gathering up tea-cups and mending fires. She had hoped to find the hall empty, but the sight of Westy Gaines’s figure looming watchfully on the threshold of the smoking-room gave her, at the last bend of the stairs, a little start of annoyance. He would want to know where she was going, he would offer to go with her, and it would take some time and not a little emphasis to make him understand that his society was not desired.

This was the thought that flashed through Justine’s mind as she reached the landing; but the next moment it gave way to a contradictory feeling. Westy Gaines was not alone in the hall. From under the stairway rose the voices of a group ensconced in that popular retreat about a chess-board; and as Justine reached the last turn of the stairs she perceived that Mason Winch, an earnest youth with advanced views on political economy, was engaged, to the diversion of a circle of spectators, in teaching the Telfer girls chess. The futility of trying to fix the spasmodic attention of this effervescent couple, and their instructor’s grave unconsciousness of the fact, constituted, for the lookers-on, the peculiar diversion of the scene. It was of course inevitable that young Winch, on his arrival at Lynbrook, should have succumbed at once to the tumultuous charms of the Telfer manner, which was equally attractive to inarticulate youth and to tired and talked-out middle-age; but that he should have perceived no resistance in their minds to the deliberative processes of the game of chess, was, even to the Telfers themselves, a source of unmitigated gaiety. Nothing seemed to them funnier than that any one should credit them with any mental capacity; and they had inexhaustibly amusing ways of drawing out and showing off each other’s ignorance.

It was on this scene that Westy’s appreciative eyes had been fixed till Justine’s appearance drew them to herself. He pronounced her name joyfully, and moved forward to greet her; but as their hands met she understood that he did not mean to press his company upon her. Under the eye of the Lynbrook circle he was chary of marked demonstrations, and even Mrs. Amherst’s approval could not, at such moments, bridge over the gap between himself and the object of his attentions. A Gaines was a Gaines in the last analysis, and apart from any pleasing accident of personality; but what was Miss Brent but the transient vehicle of those graces which Providence has provided for the delectation of the privileged sex?

These influences were visible in the temperate warmth of Westy’s manner, and in his way of keeping a backward eye on the mute interchange of comment about the chess-board. At another time his embarrassment would have amused Justine; but the feelings stirred by her talk with Bessy had not subsided, and she recognized with a sting of mortification the resemblance between her view of the Lynbrook set and its estimate of herself. If Bessy’s friends were negligible to her she was almost non-existent to them; and, as against herself, they were overwhelmingly provided with tangible means of proving their case.

Such considerations, at a given moment, may prevail decisively even with a nature armed against them by insight and irony; and the mere fact that Westy Gaines did not mean to join her, and that he was withheld from doing so by the invisible pressure of the Lynbrook standards, had the effect of precipitating Justine’s floating intentions.

If anything farther had been needed to hasten this result, it would have been accomplished by the sound of footsteps which, over-taking her a dozen yards from the house, announced her admirer’s impetuous if tardy pursuit. The act of dismissing him, though it took but a word and was effected with a laugh, left her pride quivering with a hurt the more painful because she would not acknowledge it. That she should waste a moment’s resentment on the conduct of a person so unimportant as poor Westy, showed her in a flash the intrinsic falseness of her position at Lynbrook. She saw that to disdain the life about her had not kept her intact from it; and the knowledge made her feel anew the need of some strong decentralizing influence, some purifying influx of emotion and activity.

She had walked on quickly through the clear October twilight, which was still saturated with the after-glow of a vivid sunset; and a few minutes brought her to the village stretching along the turnpike beyond the Lynbrook gates. The new post-office dominated the row of shabby houses and “stores” set disjointedly under reddening maples, and its arched doorway formed the centre of Lynbrook’s evening intercourse.

Justine, hastening toward the knot of loungers on the threshold, had no consciousness of anything outside of her own thoughts; and as she mounted the steps she was surprised to see Dr. Wyant detach himself from the group and advance to meet her.

“May I post your letter?” he asked, lifting his hat.

His gesture uncovered the close-curling hair of a small delicately-finished head just saved from effeminacy by the vigorous jut of heavy eye-brows meeting above full grey eyes. The eyes again, at first sight, might have struck one as too expressive, or as expressing things too purely decorative for the purposes of a young country doctor with a growing practice; but this estimate was corrected by an unexpected abruptness in their owner’s voice and manner. Perhaps the final impression produced on a close observer by Dr. Stephen Wyant would have been that the contradictory qualities of which he was compounded had not yet been brought into equilibrium by the hand of time.

Justine, in reply to his question, had drawn back a step, slipping her letter into the breast of her jacket.

“That is hardly worth while, since it was addressed to you,” she answered with a slight smile as she turned to descend the post-office steps.

Wyant, still carrying his hat, and walking with quick uneven steps, followed her in silence till they had passed beyond earshot of the loiterers on the threshold; then, in the shade of the maple boughs, he pulled up and faced her.

“You’ve written to say that I may come tomorrow?”

Justine hesitated. “Yes,” she said at length.

“Good God! You give royally!” he broke out, pushing his hand with a nervous gesture through the thin dark curls on his forehead.

Justine laughed, with a trace of nervousness in her own tone. “And you talk — well, imperially! Aren’t you afraid to bankrupt the language?”

“What do you mean?” he said, staring.

“What do you mean? I have merely said that I would see you tomorrow —— ”

“Well,” he retorted, “that’s enough for my happiness!”

She sounded her light laugh again. “I’m glad to know you’re so easily pleased.”

“I’m not! But you couldn’t have done a cruel thing without a struggle; and since you’re ready to give me my answer tomorrow, I know it can’t be a cruel one.”

They had begun to walk onward as they talked, but at this she halted. “Please don’t take that tone. I dislike sentimentality!” she exclaimed, with a tinge of imperiousness that was a surprise to her own ears.

It was not the first time in the course of her friendship with Stephen Wyant that she had been startled by this intervention of something within her that resisted and almost resented his homage. When they were apart, she was conscious only of the community of interests and sympathies that had first drawn them together. Why was it then — since his looks were of the kind generally thought to stand a suitor in good stead — that whenever they had met of late she had been subject to these rushes of obscure hostility, the half-physical, half-moral shrinking from some indefinable element in his nature against which she was constrained to defend herself by perpetual pleasantry and evasion?

To Wyant, at any rate, the answer was not far to seek. His pale face reflected the disdain in hers as he returned ironically: “A thousand pardons; I know I’m not always in the key.”

“The key?”

“I haven’t yet acquired the Lynbrook tone. You must make allowances for my lack of opportunity.”

The retort on Justine’s lips dropped to silence, as though his words had in fact brought an answer to her inward questioning. Could it be that he was right — that her shrinking from him was the result of an increased sensitiveness to faults of taste that she would once have despised herself for noticing? When she had first known him, in her work at St. Elizabeth’s some three years earlier, his excesses of manner had seemed to her merely the boyish tokens of a richness of nature not yet controlled by experience. Though Wyant was somewhat older than herself there had always been an element of protection in her feeling for him, and it was perhaps this element which formed the real ground of her liking. It was, at any rate, uppermost as she returned, with a softened gleam of mockery: “Since you are so sure of my answer I hardly know why I should see you tomorrow.”

“You mean me to take it now?” he exclaimed.

“I don’t mean you to take it at all till it’s given — above all not to take it for granted!”

His jutting brows drew together again. “Ah, I can’t split hairs with you. Won’t you put me out of my misery?”

She smiled, but not unkindly. “Do you want an anæsthetic?”

“No — a clean cut with the knife!”

“You forget that we’re not allowed to despatch hopeless cases — more’s the pity!”

He flushed to the roots of his thin hair. “Hopeless cases? That’s it, then — that’s my answer?”

They had reached the point where, at the farther edge of the straggling settlement, the tiled roof of the railway-station fronted the post-office cupola; and the shriek of a whistle now reminded Justine that the spot was not propitious to private talk. She halted a moment before speaking.

“I have no answer to give you now but the one in my note — that I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“But if you’re sure of knowing tomorrow you must know now!”

Their eyes met, his eloquently pleading, hers kind but still impenetrable. “If I knew now, you should know too. Please be content with that,” she rejoined.

“How can I be, when a day may make such a difference? When I know that every influence about you is fighting against me?”

The words flashed a refracted light far down into the causes of her own uncertainty.

“Ah,” she said, drawing a little away from him, “I’m not so sure that I don’t like a fight!”

“Is that why you won’t give in?” He moved toward her with a despairing gesture. “If I let you go now, you’re lost to me!”

She stood her ground, facing him with a quick lift of the head. “If you don’t let me go I certainly am,” she said; and he drew back, as if conscious of the uselessness of the struggle. His submission, as usual, had a disarming effect on her irritation, and she held out her hand. “Come tomorrow at three,” she said, her voice and manner suddenly seeming to give back the hope she had withheld from him.

He seized on her hand with an inarticulate murmur; but at the same moment a louder whistle and the thunder of an approaching train reminded her of the impossibility of prolonging the scene. She was ordinarily careless of appearances, but while she was Mrs. Amherst’s guest she did not care to be seen romantically loitering through the twilight with Stephen Wyant; and she freed herself with a quick goodbye.

He gave her a last look, hesitating and imploring; then, in obedience to her gesture, he turned away and strode off in the opposite direction.

As soon as he had left her she began to retrace her steps toward Lynbrook House; but instead of traversing the whole length of the village she passed through a turnstile in the park fencing, taking a more circuitous but quieter way home.

She walked on slowly through the dusk, wishing to give herself time to think over her conversation with Wyant. Now that she was alone again, it seemed to her that the part she had played had been both inconsistent and undignified. When she had written to Wyant that she would see him on the morrow she had done so with the clear understanding that she was to give, at that meeting, a definite answer to his offer of marriage; and during her talk with Bessy she had suddenly, and, as it seemed to her, irrevocably, decided that the answer should be favourable. From the first days of her acquaintance with Wyant she had appreciated his intelligence and had been stimulated by his zeal for his work. He had remained only six months at Saint Elizabeth’s, and though his feeling for her had even then been manifest, it had been kept from expression by the restraint of their professional relation, and by her absorption in her duties. It was only when they had met again at Lynbrook that she had begun to feel a personal interest in him. His youthful promise seemed nearer fulfillment than she had once thought possible, and the contrast he presented to the young men in Bessy’s train was really all in his favour. He had gained in strength and steadiness without losing his high flashes of enthusiasm; and though, even now, she was not in love with him, she began to feel that the union of their common interests might create a life full and useful enough to preclude the possibility of vague repinings. It would, at any rate, take her out of the stagnant circle of her present existence, and restore her to contact with the fruitful energies of life.

All this had seemed quite clear when she wrote her letter; why, then, had she not made use of their chance encounter to give her answer, instead of capriciously postponing it? The act might have been that of a self-conscious girl in her teens; but neither inexperience nor coquetry had prompted it. She had merely yielded to the spirit of resistance that Wyant’s presence had of late aroused in her; and the possibility that this resistance might be due to some sense of his social defects, his lack of measure and facility, was so humiliating that for a moment she stood still in the path, half-meaning to turn back and overtake him ——

As she paused she was surprised to hear a man’s step behind her; and the thought that it might be Wyant’s brought about another revulsion of feeling. What right had he to pursue her in this way, to dog her steps even into the Lynbrook grounds? She was sure that his persistent attentions had already attracted the notice of Bessy’s visitors; and that he should thus force himself on her after her dismissal seemed suddenly to make their whole relation ridiculous.

She turned about to rebuke him, and found herself face to face with John Amherst.

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