Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XVII

BESSY had not seen her little girl that day, and filled with compunction by Justine’s reminder, she hastened directly to the school-room.

Of late, in certain moods, her maternal tenderness had been clouded by a sense of uneasiness in the child’s presence, for Cicely was the argument most effectually used by Mr. Langhope and Mr. Tredegar in their efforts to check the triumph of Amherst’s ideas. Bessy, still unable to form an independent opinion on the harassing question of the mills, continued to oscillate between the views of the contending parties, now regarding Cicely as an innocent victim and herself as an unnatural mother, sacrificing her child’s prospects to further Amherst’s enterprise, and now conscious of a vague animosity against the little girl, as the chief cause of the dissensions which had so soon clouded the skies of her second marriage. Then again, there were moments when Cicely’s rosy bloom reminded her bitterly of the child she had lost — the son on whom her ambitions had been fixed. It seemed to her now that if their boy had lived she might have kept Amherst’s love and have played a more important part in his life; and brooding on the tragedy of the child’s sickly existence she resented the contrast of Cicely’s brightness and vigour. The result was that in her treatment of her daughter she alternated between moments of exaggerated devotion and days of neglect, never long happy away from the little girl, yet restless and self-tormenting in her presence.

After her talk with Justine she felt more than usually disturbed, as she always did when her unprofitable impulses of self-exposure had subsided. Bessy’s mind was not made for introspection, and chance had burdened it with unintelligible problems. She felt herself the victim of circumstances to which her imagination attributed the deliberate malice that children ascribe to the furniture they run against in playing. This helped her to cultivate a sense of helpless injury and to disdain in advance the advice she was perpetually seeking. How absurd it was, for instance, to suppose that a girl could understand the feelings of a married woman! Justine’s suggestion that she should humble herself still farther to Amherst merely left in Bessy’s mind a rankling sense of being misunderstood and undervalued by those to whom she turned in her extremity, and she said to herself, in a phrase that sounded well in her own ears, that sooner or later every woman must learn to fight her battles alone.

In this mood she entered the room where Cicely was at supper with her governess, and enveloped the child in a whirl of passionate caresses. But Cicely had inherited the soberer Westmore temper, and her mother’s spasmodic endearments always had a repressive effect on her. She dutifully returned a small fraction of Bessy’s kisses, and then, with an air of relief, addressed herself once more to her bread and marmalade.

“You don’t seem a bit glad to see me!” Bessy exclaimed, while the little governess made a nervous pretence of being greatly amused at this prodigious paradox, and Cicely, setting down her silver mug, asked judicially: “Why should I be gladder than other days? It isn’t a birthday.”

This Cordelia-like answer cut Bessy to the quick. “You horrid child to say such a cruel thing when you know I love you better and better every minute! But you don’t care for me any longer because Justine has taken you away from me!”

This last charge had sprung into her mind in the act of uttering it, but now that it was spoken it instantly assumed the proportions of a fact, and seemed to furnish another justification for her wretchedness. Bessy was not naturally jealous, but her imagination was thrall to the spoken word, and it gave her a sudden incomprehensible relief to associate Justine with the obscure causes of her suffering.

“I know she’s cleverer than I am, and more amusing, and can tell you about plants and animals and things . . . and I daresay she tells you how tiresome and stupid I am. . . . ”

She sprang up suddenly, abashed by Cicely’s astonished gaze, and by the governess’s tremulous attempt to continue to treat the scene as one of “Mamma’s” most successful pleasantries.

“Don’t mind me — my head aches horribly. I think I’ll rush off for a gallop on Impulse before dinner. Miss Dill, Cicely’s nails are a sight — I suppose that comes of grubbing up wild-flowers.”

And with this parting shot at Justine’s pursuits she swept out of the school-room, leaving pupil and teacher plunged in a stricken silence from which Cicely at length emerged to say, with the candour that Miss Dill dreaded more than any punishable offense: “Mother’s prettiest — but I do like Justine the best.”

It was nearly dark when Bessy mounted the horse which had been hastily saddled in response to her order; but it was her habit to ride out alone at all hours, and of late nothing but a hard gallop had availed to quiet her nerves. Her craving for occupation had increased as her life became more dispersed and agitated, and the need to fill every hour drove her to excesses of bodily exertion, since other forms of activity were unknown to her.

As she cantered along under the twilight sky, with a strong sea-breeze in her face, the rush of air and the effort of steadying her nervous thoroughbred filled her with a glow of bodily energy from which her thoughts emerged somewhat cleansed of their bitterness.

She had been odious to poor little Cicely, for whom she now felt a sudden remorseful yearning which almost made her turn her horse’s head homeward, that she might dash upstairs and do penance beside the child’s bed. And that she should have accused Justine of taking Cicely from her! It frightened her to find herself thinking evil of Justine. Bessy, whose perceptions were keen enough in certain directions, knew that her second marriage had changed her relation to all her former circle of friends. Though they still rallied about her, keeping up the convenient habit of familiar intercourse, she had begun to be aware that their view of her had in it an element of criticism and compassion. She had once fancied that Amherst’s good looks, and the other qualities she had seen in him, would immediately make him free of the charmed circle in which she moved; but she was discouraged by his disregard of his opportunities, and above all by the fundamental differences in his view of life. He was never common or ridiculous, but she saw that he would never acquire the small social facilities. He was fond of exercise, but it bored him to talk of it. The men’s smoking-room anecdotes did not amuse him, he was unmoved by the fluctuations of the stock-market, he could not tell one card from another, and his perfunctory attempts at billiards had once caused Mr. Langhope to murmur, in his daughter’s hearing: “Ah, that’s the test — I always said so!”

Thus debarred from what seemed to Bessy the chief points of contact with life, how could Amherst hope to impose himself on minds versed in these larger relations? As the sense of his social insufficiency grew on her, Bessy became more sensitive to that latent criticism of her marriage which — intolerable thought! — involved a judgment on herself. She was increasingly eager for the approval and applause of her little audience, yet increasingly distrustful of their sincerity, and more miserably persuaded that she and her husband were the butt of some of their most effective stories. She knew also that rumours of the disagreement about Westmore were abroad, and the suspicion that Amherst’s conduct was the subject of unfriendly comment provoked in her a reaction of loyalty to his ideas. . . .

From this turmoil of conflicting influences only her friendship with Justine Brent remained secure. Though Justine’s adaptability made it easy for her to fit into the Lynbrook life, Bessy knew that she stood as much outside of it as Amherst. She could never, for instance, be influenced by what Maria Ansell and the Gaineses and the Telfers thought. She had her own criteria of conduct, unintelligible to Bessy, but giving her an independence of mind on which her friend leaned in a kind of blind security. And that even her faith in Justine should suddenly be poisoned by a jealous thought seemed to prove that the consequences of her marriage were gradually infecting her whole life. Bessy could conceive of masculine devotion only as subservient to its divinity’s least wish, and she argued that if Amherst had really loved her he could not so lightly have disturbed the foundations of her world. And so her tormented thoughts, perpetually circling on themselves, reverted once more to their central grievance — the failure of her marriage. If her own love had died out it would have been much simpler — she was surrounded by examples of the mutual evasion of a troublesome tie. There was Blanche Carbury, for instance, with whom she had lately struck up an absorbing friendship . . . it was perfectly clear that Blanche Carbury wondered how much more she was going to stand! But it was the torment of Bessy’s situation that it involved a radical contradiction, that she still loved Amherst though she could not forgive him for having married her.

Perhaps what she most suffered from was his too-prompt acceptance of the semi-estrangement between them. After nearly three years of marriage she had still to learn that it was Amherst’s way to wrestle with the angel till dawn, and then to go about his other business. Her own mind could revolve in the same grievance as interminably as a squirrel in its wheel, and her husband’s habit of casting off the accepted fact seemed to betoken poverty of feeling. If only he had striven a little harder to keep her — if, even now, he would come back to her, and make her feel that she was more to him than those wretched mills!

When she turned her mare toward Lynbrook, the longing to see Amherst was again uppermost. He had not written for weeks — she had been obliged to tell Maria Ansell that she knew nothing of his plans, and it mortified her to think that every one was aware of his neglect. Yet, even now, if on reaching the house she should find a telegram to say that he was coming, the weight of loneliness would be lifted, and everything in life would seem different. . . .

Her high-strung mare, scenting the homeward road, and excited by the fantastic play of wayside lights and shadows, swept her along at a wild gallop with which the fevered rush of her thoughts kept pace, and when she reached the house she dropped from the saddle with aching wrists and brain benumbed.

She entered by a side door, to avoid meeting any one, and ran upstairs at once, knowing that she had barely time to dress for dinner. As she opened the door of her sitting-room some one rose from the chair by the fire, and she stood still, facing her husband. . . .

It was the moment both had desired, yet when it came it found them tongue-tied and helpless.

Bessy was the first to speak. “When did you get here? You never wrote me you were coming!”

Amherst advanced toward her, holding out his hand. “No; you must forgive me. I have been very busy,” he said.

Always the same excuse! The same thrusting at her of the hateful fact that Westmore came first, and that she must put up with whatever was left of his time and thoughts!

“You are always too busy to let me hear from you,” she said coldly, and the hand which had sprung toward his fell back to her side.

Even then, if he had only said frankly: “It was too difficult — I didn’t know how,” the note of truth would have reached and moved her; but he had striven for the tone of ease and self-restraint that was habitual among her friends, and as usual his attempt had been a failure.

“I am sorry — I’m a bad hand at writing,” he rejoined; and his evil genius prompted him to add: “I hope my coming is not inconvenient?”

The colour rose to Bessy’s face. “Of course not. But it must seem rather odd to our visitors that I should know so little of your plans.”

At this he humbled himself still farther. “I know I don’t think enough about appearances — I’ll try to do better the next time.”

Appearances! He spoke as if she had been reproaching him for a breach of etiquette . . . it never occurred to him that the cry came from her humiliated heart! The tide of warmth that always enveloped her in his presence was receding, and in its place a chill fluid seemed to creep up slowly to her throat and lips.

In Amherst, meanwhile, the opposite process was taking place. His wife was still to him the most beautiful woman in the world, or rather, perhaps, the only woman to whose beauty his eyes had been opened. That beauty could never again penetrate to his heart, but it still touched his senses, not with passion but with a caressing kindliness, such as one might feel for the bright movements of a bird or a kitten. It seemed to plead with him not to ask of her more than she could give — to be content with the outward grace and not seek in it an inner meaning. He moved toward her again, and took her passive hands in his.

“You look tired. Why do you ride so late?”

“Oh, I just wanted to give Impulse a gallop. I hadn’t time to take her out earlier, and if I let the grooms exercise her they’ll spoil her mouth.”

Amherst frowned. “You ought not to ride that mare alone at night. She shies at everything after dark.”

“She’s the only horse I care for — the others are all cows,” she murmured, releasing her hands impatiently.

“Well, you must take me with you the next time you ride her.”

She softened a little, in spite of herself. Riding was the only amusement he cared to share with her, and the thought of a long gallop across the plains at his side brought back the warmth to her veins.

“Yes, we’ll go tomorrow. How long do you mean to stay?” she asked, looking up at him eagerly.

He was pleased that she should wish to know, yet the question embarrassed him, for it was necessary that he should be back at Westmore within three days, and he could not put her off with an evasion.

Bessy saw his hesitation, and her colour rose again. “I only asked,” she explained, “because there is to be a fancy ball at the Hunt Club on the twentieth, and I thought of giving a big dinner here first.”

Amherst did not understand that she too had her inarticulate moments, and that the allusion to the fancy ball was improvised to hide an eagerness to which he had been too slow in responding. He thought she had enquired about his plans only that he might not again interfere with the arrangements of her dinner-table. If that was all she cared about, it became suddenly easy to tell her that he could not stay, and he answered lightly: “Fancy balls are a little out of my line; but at any rate I shall have to be back at the mills the day after tomorrow.”

The disappointment brought a rush of bitterness to her lips. “The day after tomorrow? It seems hardly worth while to have come so far for two days!”

“Oh, I don’t mind the journey — and there are one or two matters I must consult you about.”

There could hardly have been a more ill-advised answer, but Amherst was reckless now. If she cared for his coming only that he might fill a place at a fancy-dress dinner, he would let her see that he had come only because he had to go through the form of submitting to her certain measures to be taken at Westmore.

Bessy was beginning to feel the physical reaction of her struggle with the mare. The fatigue which at first had deadened her nerves now woke them to acuter sensibility, and an appealing word from her husband would have drawn her to his arms. But his answer seemed to drive all the blood back to her heart.

“I don’t see why you still go through the form of consulting me about Westmore, when you have always done just as you pleased there, without regard to me or Cicely.”

Amherst made no answer, silenced by the discouragement of hearing the same old grievance on her lips; and she too seemed struck, after she had spoken, by the unprofitableness of such retorts.

“It doesn’t matter — of course I’ll do whatever you wish,” she went on listlessly. “But I could have sent my signature, if that is all you came for —— ”

“Thanks,” said Amherst coldly. “I shall remember that the next time.”

They stood silent for a moment, he with his eyes fixed on her, she with averted head, twisting her riding-whip between her fingers; then she said suddenly: “We shall be late for dinner,” and passing into her dressing-room she closed the door.

Amherst roused himself as she disappeared.

“Bessy!” he exclaimed, moving toward her; but as he approached the door he heard her maid’s voice within, and turning away he went to his own room.

Bessy came down late to dinner, with vivid cheeks and an air of improvised ease; and the manner of her entrance, combined with her husband’s unannounced arrival, produced in their observant guests the sense of latent complications. Mr. Langhope, though evidently unaware of his son-in-law’s return till they greeted each other in the drawing-room, was too good a card-player to betray surprise, and Mrs. Ansell outdid herself in the delicate art of taking everything for granted; but these very dissimulations sharpened the perception of the other guests, whom long practice had rendered expert in interpreting such signs.

Of all this Justine Brent was aware; and conscious also that, by every one but herself, the suspected estrangement between the Amhersts was regarded as turning merely on the question of money. To the greater number of persons present there was, in fact, no other conceivable source of conjugal discord, since every known complication could be adjusted by means of the universal lubricant. It was this unanimity of view which bound together in the compactness of a new feudalism the members of Bessy Amherst’s world; which supplied them with their pass-words and social tests, and defended them securely against the insidious attack of ideas.

The Genius of History, capriciously directing the antics of its marionettes, sometimes lets the drama languish through a series of unrelated episodes, and then, suddenly quickening the pace, packs into one scene the stuff of a dozen. The chance meeting of Amherst and Justine, seemingly of no significance to either, contained the germ of developments of which both had begun to be aware before the evening was over. Their short talk — the first really intimate exchange of words between them — had the effect of creating a sense of solidarity that grew apace in the atmosphere of the Lynbrook dinner-table.

Justine was always reluctant to take part in Bessy’s week-end dinners, but as she descended the stairs that evening she did not regret having promised to be present. She frankly wanted to see Amherst again — his tone, his view of life, reinforced her own convictions, restored her faith in the reality and importance of all that Lynbrook ignored and excluded. Her extreme sensitiveness to surrounding vibrations of thought and feeling told her, as she glanced at him between the flowers and candles of the long dinner-table, that he too was obscurely aware of the same effect; and it flashed across her that they were unconsciously drawn together by the fact that they were the only two strangers in the room. Every one else had the same standpoint, spoke the same language, drew on the same stock of allusions, used the same weights and measures in estimating persons and actions. Between Mr. Langhope’s indolent acuteness of mind and the rudimentary processes of the rosy Telfers there was a difference of degree but not of kind. If Mr. Langhope viewed the spectacle more objectively, it was not because he had outlived the sense of its importance, but because years of experience had familiarized him with its minutest details; and this familiarity with the world he lived in had bred a profound contempt for any other.

In no way could the points of contact between Amherst and Justine Brent have been more vividly brought out than by their tacit exclusion from the currents of opinion about them. Amherst, seated in unsmiling endurance at the foot of the table, between Mrs. Ansell, with her carefully-distributed affabilities, and Blanche Carbury, with her reckless hurling of conversational pebbles, seemed to Justine as much of a stranger as herself among the people to whom his marriage had introduced him. So strongly did she feel the sense of their common isolation that it was no surprise to her, when the men reappeared in the drawing-room after dinner, to have her host thread his way, between the unfolding bridge-tables, straight to the corner where she sat. Amherst’s methods in the drawing-room were still as direct as in the cotton-mill. He always went up at once to the person he sought, without preliminary waste of tactics; and on this occasion Justine, without knowing what had passed between himself and Bessy, suspected from the appearance of both that their talk had resulted in increasing Amherst’s desire to be with some one to whom he could speak freely and naturally on the subject nearest his heart.

She began at once to question him about Westmore, and the change in his face showed that his work was still a refuge from all that made life disheartening and unintelligible. Whatever convictions had been thwarted or impaired in him, his faith in the importance of his task remained unshaken; and the firmness with which he held to it filled Justine with a sense of his strength. The feeling kindled her own desire to escape again into the world of deeds, yet by a sudden reaction it checked the growing inclination for Stephen Wyant that had resulted from her revolt against Lynbrook. Here was a man as careless as Wyant of the minor forms, yet her appreciation of him was not affected by the lack of adaptability that she accused herself of criticizing in her suitor. She began to see that it was not the sense of Wyant’s social deficiencies that had held her back; and the discovery at once set free her judgment of him, enabling her to penetrate to the real causes of her reluctance. She understood now that the flaw she felt was far deeper than any defect of manner. It was the sense in him of something unstable and incalculable, something at once weak and violent, that was brought to light by the contrast of Amherst’s quiet resolution. Here was a man whom no gusts of chance could deflect from his purpose; while she felt that the career to which Wyant had so ardently given himself would always be at the mercy of his passing emotions.

As the distinction grew clearer, Justine trembled to think that she had so nearly pledged herself, without the excuse of love, to a man whose failings she could judge so lucidly. . . . But had she ever really thought of marrying Wyant? While she continued to talk with Amherst such a possibility became more and more remote, till she began to feel it was no more than a haunting dream. But her promise to see Wyant the next day reminded her of the nearness of her peril. How could she have played with her fate so lightly — she, who held her life so dear because she felt in it such untried powers of action and emotion? She continued to listen to Amherst’s account of his work, with enough outward self-possession to place the right comment and put the right question, yet conscious only of the quiet strength she was absorbing from his presence, of the way in which his words, his voice, his mere nearness were slowly steadying and clarifying her will.

In the smoking-room, after the ladies had gone upstairs, Amherst continued to acquit himself mechanically of his duties, against the incongruous back-ground of his predecessor’s remarkable sporting-prints — for it was characteristic of his relation to Lynbrook that his life there was carried on in the setting of foils and boxing-gloves, firearms and racing-trophies, which had expressed Dick Westmore’s ideals. Never very keenly alive to his material surroundings, and quite unconscious of the irony of this proximity, Amherst had come to accept his wife’s guests as unquestioningly as their background, and with the same sense of their being an inevitable part of his new life. Their talk was no more intelligible to him than the red and yellow hieroglyphics of the racing-prints, and he smoked in silence while Mr. Langhope discoursed to Westy Gaines on the recent sale of Chinese porcelains at which he had been lucky enough to pick up the set of Ming for his daughter, and Mason Winch expounded to a group of languid listeners the essential dependence of the labouring-man on the prosperity of Wall Street. In a retired corner, Ned Bowfort was imparting facts of a more personal nature to a chosen following who hailed with suppressed enjoyment the murmured mention of proper names; and now and then Amherst found himself obliged to say to Fenton Carbury, who with one accord had been left on his hands, “Yes, I understand the flat-tread tire is best,” or, “There’s a good deal to be said for the low tension magneto —— ”

But all the while his conscious thoughts were absorbed in the remembrance of his talk with Justine Brent. He had left his wife’s presence in that state of moral lassitude when the strongest hopes droop under the infection of indifference and hostility, and the effort of attainment seems out of all proportion to the end in view; but as he listened to Justine all his energies sprang to life again. Here at last was some one who felt the urgency of his task: her every word and look confirmed her comment of the afternoon: “Westmore must be foremost to you both in time — I don’t see how either of you can escape it.”

She saw it, as he did, to be the special outlet offered for the expression of what he was worth to the world; and with the knowledge that one other person recognized his call, it sounded again loudly in his heart. Yes, he would go on, patiently and persistently, conquering obstacles, suffering delay, enduring criticism — hardest of all, bearing with his wife’s deepening indifference and distrust. Justine had said “Westmore must be foremost to you both,” and he would prove that she was right — spite of the powers leagued against him he would win over Bessy in the end!

Those observers who had been struck by the length and animation of Miss Brent’s talk with her host — and among whom Mrs. Ansell and Westy Gaines were foremost — would hardly have believed how small a part her personal charms had played in attracting him. Amherst was still under the power of the other kind of beauty — the soft graces personifying the first triumph of sex in his heart — and Justine’s dark slenderness could not at once dispel the milder image. He watched her with pleasure while she talked, but her face interested him only as the vehicle of her ideas — she looked as a girl must look who felt and thought as she did. He was aware that everything about her was quick and fine and supple, and that the muscles of character lay close to the surface of feeling; but the interpenetration of spirit and flesh that made her body seem like the bright projection of her mind left him unconscious of anything but the oneness of their thoughts.

So these two, in their hour of doubt, poured strength into each other’s hearts, each unconscious of what they gave, and of its hidden power of renewing their own purposes.

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