Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XVI

AMHERST, on leaving the train at Lynbrook, had paused in doubt on the empty platform. His return was unexpected, and no carriage awaited him; but he caught the signal of the village cab-driver’s ready whip. Amherst, however, felt a sudden desire to postpone the moment of arrival, and consigning his luggage to the cab he walked away toward the turnstile through which Justine had passed. In thus taking the longest way home he was yielding another point to his reluctance. He knew that at that hour his wife’s visitors might still be assembled in the drawing-room, and he wished to avoid making his unannounced entrance among them.

It was not till now that he felt the embarrassment of such an arrival. For some time past he had known that he ought to go back to Lynbrook, but he had not known how to tell Bessy that he was coming. Lack of habit made him inexpert in the art of easy transitions, and his inability to bridge over awkward gaps had often put him at a disadvantage with his wife and her friends. He had not yet learned the importance of observing the forms which made up the daily ceremonial of their lives, and at present there was just enough soreness between himself and Bessy to make such observances more difficult than usual.

There had been no open estrangement, but peace had been preserved at the cost of a slowly accumulated tale of grievances on both sides. Since Amherst had won his point about the mills, the danger he had foreseen had been realized: his victory at Westmore had been a defeat at Lynbrook. It would be too crude to say that his wife had made him pay for her public concession by the private disregard of his wishes; and if something of this sort had actually resulted, his sense of fairness told him that it was merely the natural reaction of a soft nature against the momentary strain of self-denial. At first he had been hardly aware of this consequence of his triumph. The joy of being able to work his will at Westmore obscured all lesser emotions; and his sentiment for Bessy had long since shrunk into one of those shallow pools of feeling which a sudden tide might fill, but which could never again be the deep perennial spring from which his life was fed.

The need of remaining continuously at Hanaford while the first changes were making had increased the strain of the situation. He had never expected that Bessy would stay there with him — had perhaps, at heart, hardly wished it — and her plan of going to the Adirondacks with Miss Brent seemed to him a satisfactory alternative to the European trip she had renounced. He felt as relieved as though some one had taken off his hands the task of amusing a restless child, and he let his wife go without suspecting that the moment might be a decisive one between them. But it had not occurred to Bessy that any one could regard six weeks in the Adirondacks as an adequate substitute for a summer abroad. She felt that her sacrifice deserved recognition, and personal devotion was the only form of recognition which could satisfy her. She had expected Amherst to join her at the camp, but he did not come; and when she went back to Long Island she did not stop to see him, though Hanaford lay in her way. At the moment of her return the work at the mills made it impossible for him to go to Lynbrook; and thus the weeks drifted on without their meeting.

At last, urged by his mother, he had gone down to Long Island for a night; but though, on that occasion, he had announced his coming, he found the house full, and the whole party except Mr. Langhope in the act of starting off to a dinner in the neighbourhood. He was of course expected to go too, and Bessy appeared hurt when he declared that he was too tired and preferred to remain with Mr. Langhope; but she did not suggest staying at home herself, and drove off in a mood of exuberant gaiety. Amherst had been too busy all his life to know what intricacies of perversion a sentimental grievance may develop in an unoccupied mind, and he saw in Bessy’s act only a sign of indifference. The next day she complained to him of money difficulties, as though surprised that her income had been suddenly cut down; and when he reminded her that she had consented of her own will to this temporary reduction, she burst into tears and accused him of caring only for Westmore.

He went away exasperated by her inconsequence, and bills from Lynbrook continued to pour in on him. In the first days of their marriage, Bessy had put him in charge of her exchequer, and she was too indolent — and at heart perhaps too sensitive — to ask him to renounce the charge. It was clear to him, therefore, how little she was observing the spirit of their compact, and his mind was tormented by the anticipation of financial embarrassments. He wrote her a letter of gentle expostulation, but in her answer she ignored his remonstrance; and after that silence fell between them.

The only way to break this silence was to return to Lynbrook; but now that he had come back, he did not know what step to take next. Something in the atmosphere of his wife’s existence seemed to paralyze his will-power. When all about her spoke a language so different from his own, how could he hope to make himself heard? He knew that her family and her immediate friends — Mr. Langhope, the Gaineses, Mrs. Ansell and Mr. Tredegar — far from being means of communication, were so many sentinels ready to raise the drawbridge and drop the portcullis at his approach. They were all in league to stifle the incipient feelings he had roused in Bessy, to push her back into the deadening routine of her former life, and the only voice that might conceivably speak for him was Miss Brent’s.

The “case” which, unexpectedly presented to her by one of the Hope Hospital physicians, had detained Justine at Hanaford during the month of June, was the means of establishing a friendship between herself and Amherst. They did not meet often, or get to know each other very well; but he saw her occasionally at his mother’s and at Mrs. Dressel’s, and once he took her out to Westmore, to consult her about the emergency hospital which was to be included among the first improvements there. The expedition had been memorable to both; and when, some two weeks later, Bessy wrote suggesting that she should take Miss Brent to the Adirondacks, it seemed to Amherst that there was no one whom he would rather have his wife choose as her companion.

He was much too busy at the time to cultivate or analyze his feeling for Miss Brent; he rested vaguely in the thought of her, as of the “nicest” girl he had ever met, and was frankly pleased when accident brought them together; but the seeds left in both their minds by these chance encounters had not yet begun to germinate.

So unperceived had been their gradual growth in intimacy that it was a surprise to Amherst to find himself suddenly thinking of her as a means of communication with his wife; but the thought gave him such encouragement that, when he saw Justine in the path before him he went toward her with unusual eagerness.

Justine, on her part, felt an equal pleasure. She knew that Bessy did not expect her husband, and that his prolonged absence had already been the cause of malicious comment at Lynbrook; and she caught at the hope that this sudden return might betoken a more favourable turn of affairs.

“Oh, I am so glad to see you!” she exclaimed; and her tone had the effect of completing his reassurance, his happy sense that she would understand and help him.

“I wanted to see you too,” he began confusedly; then, conscious of the intimacy of the phrase, he added with a slight laugh: “The fact is, I’m a culprit looking for a peace-maker.”

“A culprit?”

“I’ve been so tied down at the mills that I didn’t know, till yesterday, just when I could break away; and in the hurry of leaving — ” He paused again, checked by the impossibility of uttering, to the girl before him, the little conventional falsehoods which formed the small currency of Bessy’s circle. Not that any scruple of probity restrained him: in trifling matters he recognized the usefulness of such counters in the social game; but when he was with Justine he always felt the obscure need of letting his real self be seen.

“I was stupid enough not to telegraph,” he said, “and I am afraid my wife will think me negligent: she often has to reproach me for my sins of omission, and this time I know they are many.”

The girl received this in silence, less from embarrassment than from surprise; for she had already guessed that it was as difficult for Amherst to touch, even lightly, on his private affairs, as it was instinctive with his wife to pour her grievances into any willing ear. Justine’s first thought was one of gratification that he should have spoken, and of eagerness to facilitate the saying of whatever he wished to say; but before she could answer he went on hastily: “The fact is, Bessy does not know how complicated the work at Westmore is; and when I caught sight of you just now I was thinking that you are the only one of her friends who has any technical understanding of what I am trying to do, and who might consequently help her to see how hard it is for me to take my hand from the plough.”

Justine listened gravely, longing to cry out her comprehension and sympathy, but restrained by the sense that the moment was a critical one, where impulse must not be trusted too far. It was quite possible that a reaction of pride might cause Amherst to repent even so guarded an avowal; and if that happened, he might never forgive her for having encouraged him to speak. She looked up at him with a smile.

“Why not tell Bessy yourself? Your understanding of the case is a good deal clearer than mine or any one else’s.”

“Oh, Bessy is tired of hearing about it from me; and besides — ” She detected a shade of disappointment in his tone, and was sorry she had said anything which might seem meant to discourage his confidence. It occurred to her also that she had been insincere in not telling him at once that she had already been let into the secret of his domestic differences: she felt the same craving as Amherst for absolute openness between them.

“I know,” she said, almost timidly, “that Bessy has not been quite content of late to have you give so much time to Westmore, and perhaps she herself thinks it is because the work there does not interest her; but I believe it is for a different reason.”

“What reason?” he asked with a look of surprise.

“Because Westmore takes you from her; because she thinks you are happier there than at Lynbrook.”

The day had faded so rapidly that it was no longer possible for the speakers to see each other’s faces, and it was easier for both to communicate through the veil of deepening obscurity.

“But, good heavens, she might be there with me — she’s as much needed there as I am!” Amherst exclaimed.

“Yes; but you must remember that it’s against all her habits — and against the point of view of every one about her — that she should lead that kind of life; and meanwhile —— ”

“Well?”

“Meanwhile, isn’t it expedient that you should, a little more, lead hers?”

Always the same answer to his restless questioning! His mother’s answer, the answer of Bessy and her friends. He had somehow hoped that the girl at his side would find a different solution to the problem, and his disappointment escaped in a bitter exclamation.

“But Westmore is my life — hers too, if she knew it! I can’t desert it now without being as false to her as to myself!”

As he spoke, he was overcome once more by the hopelessness of trying to put his case clearly. How could Justine, for all her quickness and sympathy, understand a situation of which the deeper elements were necessarily unknown to her? The advice she gave him was natural enough, and on her lips it seemed not the counsel of a shallow expediency, but the plea of compassion and understanding. But she knew nothing of the long struggle for mutual adjustment which had culminated in this crisis between himself and his wife, and she could therefore not see that, if he yielded his point, and gave up his work at Westmore, the concession would mean not renewal but destruction. He felt that he should hate Bessy if he won her back at that price; and the violence of his feeling frightened him. It was, in truth, as he had said, his own life that he was fighting for. If he gave up Westmore he could not fall back on the futile activities of Lynbrook, and fate might yet have some lower alternative to offer. He could trust to his own strength and self-command while his energies had a normal outlet; but idleness and self-indulgence might work in him like a dangerous drug.

Justine kept steadily to her point. “Westmore must be foremost to both of you in time; I don’t see how either of you can escape that. But the realization of it must come to Bessy through you, and for that reason I think that you ought to be more patient — that you ought even to put the question aside for a time and enter a little more into her life while she is learning to understand yours.” As she ended, it seemed to her that what she had said was trite and ineffectual, and yet that it might have passed the measure of discretion; and, torn between two doubts, she added hastily: “But you have done just that in coming back now — that is the real solution of the problem.”

While she spoke they passed out of the wood-path they had been following, and rounding a mass of shrubbery emerged on the lawn below the terraces. The long bulk of the house lay above them, dark against the lingering gleam of the west, with brightly-lit windows marking its irregular outline; and the sight produced in Amherst and Justine a vague sense of helplessness and constraint. It was impossible to speak with the same freedom, confronted by that substantial symbol of the accepted order, which seemed to glare down on them in massive disdain of their puny efforts to deflect the course of events: and Amherst, without reverting to her last words, asked after a moment if his wife had many guests.

He listened in silence while Justine ran over the list of names — the Telfer girls and their brother, Mason Winch and Westy Gaines, a cluster of young bridge-playing couples, and, among the last arrivals, the Fenton Carburys and Ned Bowfort. The names were all familiar to Amherst — he knew they represented the flower of week-end fashion; but he did not remember having seen the Carburys among his wife’s guests, and his mind paused on the name, seeking to regain some lost impression connected with it. But it evoked, like the others, merely the confused sense of stridency and unrest which he had brought away from his last Lynbrook visit; and this reminiscence made him ask Miss Brent, when her list was ended, if she did not think that so continuous a succession of visitors was too tiring for Bessy.

“I sometimes think it tires her more than she knows; but I hope she can be persuaded to take better care of herself now that Mrs. Ansell has come back.”

Amherst halted abruptly. “Is Mrs. Ansell here?”

“She arrived from Europe today.”

“And Mr. Langhope too, I suppose?”

“Yes. He came from Newport about ten days ago.”

Amherst checked himself, conscious that his questions betrayed the fact that he and his wife no longer wrote to each other. The same thought appeared to strike Justine, and they walked across the lawn in silence, hastening their steps involuntarily, as though to escape the oppressive weight of the words which had passed between them. But Justine was unwilling that this fruitless sense of oppression should be the final outcome of their talk; and when they reached the upper terrace she paused and turned impulsively to Amherst. As she did so, the light from an uncurtained window fell on her face, which glowed with the inner brightness kindled in it by moments of strong feeling.

“I am sure of one thing — Bessy will be very, very glad that you have come,” she exclaimed.

“Thank you,” he answered.

Their hands met mechanically, and she turned away and entered the house.

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