Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XIX

IT was late in October when Amherst returned to Lynbrook.

He had begun to learn, in the interval, the lesson most difficult to his direct and trenchant nature: that compromise is the law of married life. On the afternoon of his talk with his wife he had sought her out, determined to make a final effort to clear up the situation between them; but he learned that, immediately after luncheon, she had gone off in the motor with Mrs. Carbury and two men of the party, leaving word that they would probably not be back till evening. It cost Amherst a struggle, when he had humbled himself to receive this information from the butler, not to pack his portmanteau and take the first train for Hanaford; but he was still under the influence of Justine Brent’s words, and also of his own feeling that, at this juncture, a break between himself and Bessy would be final.

He stayed on accordingly, enduring as best he might the mute observation of the household, and the gentle irony of Mr. Langhope’s attentions; and before he left Lynbrook, two days later, a provisional understanding had been reached.

His wife proved more firm than he had foreseen in her resolve to regain control of her income, and the talk between them ended in reciprocal concessions, Bessy consenting to let the town house for the winter and remain at Lynbrook, while Amherst agreed to restrict his improvements at Westmore to such alterations as had already been begun, and to reduce the expenditure on these as much as possible. It was virtually the defeat of his policy, and he had to suffer the decent triumph of the Gaineses, as well as the bitterer pang of his foiled aspirations. In spite of the opposition of the directors, he had taken advantage of Truscomb’s resignation to put Duplain at the head of the mills; but the new manager’s outspoken disgust at the company’s change of plan made it clear that he would not remain long at Westmore, and it was one of the miseries of Amherst’s situation that he could not give the reasons for his defection, but must bear to figure in Duplain’s terse vocabulary as a “quitter.” The difficulty of finding a new manager expert enough to satisfy the directors, yet in sympathy with his own social theories, made Amherst fear that Duplain’s withdrawal would open the way for Truscomb’s reinstatement, an outcome on which he suspected Halford Gaines had always counted; and this possibility loomed before him as the final defeat of his hopes.

Meanwhile the issues ahead had at least the merit of keeping him busy. The task of modifying and retrenching his plans contrasted drearily with the hopeful activity of the past months, but he had an iron capacity for hard work under adverse conditions, and the fact of being too busy for thought helped him to wear through the days. This pressure of work relieved him, at first, from too close consideration of his relation to Bessy. He had yielded up his dearest hopes at her wish, and for the moment his renunciation had set a chasm between them; but gradually he saw that, as he was patching together the ruins of his Westmore plans, so he must presently apply himself to the reconstruction of his married life.

Before leaving Lynbrook he had had a last word with Miss Brent; not a word of confidence — for the same sense of reserve kept both from any explicit renewal of their moment’s intimacy — but one of those exchanges of commonplace phrase that circumstances may be left to charge with special meaning. Justine had merely asked if he were really leaving and, on his assenting, had exclaimed quickly: “But you will come back soon?”

“I shall certainly come back,” he answered; and after a pause he added: “I shall find you here? You will remain at Lynbrook?”

On her part also there was a shade of hesitation; then she said with a smile: “Yes, I shall stay.”

His look brightened. “And you’ll write me if anything — if Bessy should not be well?”

“I will write you,” she promised; and a few weeks after his return to Hanaford he had, in fact, received a short note from her. Its ostensible purpose was to reassure him as to Bessy’s health, which had certainly grown stronger since Dr. Wyant had persuaded her, at the close of the last house-party, to accord herself a period of quiet; but (the writer added) now that Mr. Langhope and Mrs. Ansell had also left, the quiet was perhaps too complete, and Bessy’s nerves were beginning to suffer from the reaction.

Amherst had no difficulty in interpreting this brief communication. “I have succeeded in dispersing the people who are always keeping you and your wife apart; now is your chance: come and take it.” That was what Miss Brent’s letter meant; and his answer was a telegram to Bessy, announcing his return to Long Island.

The step was not an easy one; but decisive action, however hard, was always easier to Amherst than the ensuing interval of readjustment. To come to Lynbrook had required a strong effort of will; but the effort of remaining there called into play less disciplined faculties.

Amherst had always been used to doing things; now he had to resign himself to enduring a state of things. The material facilities of the life about him, the way in which the machinery of the great empty house ran on like some complex apparatus working in the void, increased the exasperation of his nerves. Dr. Wyant’s suggestion — which Amherst suspected Justine of having prompted — that Mrs. Amherst should cancel her autumn engagements, and give herself up to a quiet outdoor life with her husband, seemed to present the very opportunity these two distracted spirits needed to find and repossess each other. But, though Amherst was grateful to Bessy for having dismissed her visitors — partly to please him, as he guessed — yet he found the routine of the establishment more oppressive than when the house was full. If he could have been alone with her in a quiet corner — the despised cottage at Westmore, even! — he fancied they might still have been brought together by restricted space and the familiar exigencies of life. All the primitive necessities which bind together, through their recurring daily wants, natures fated to find no higher point of union, had been carefully eliminated from the life at Lynbrook, where material needs were not only provided for but anticipated by a hidden mechanism that filled the house with the perpetual sense of invisible attendance. Though Amherst knew that he and Bessy could never meet in the region of great issues, he thought he might have regained the way to her heart, and found relief from his own inaction, in the small ministrations of daily life; but the next moment he smiled to picture Bessy in surroundings where the clocks were not wound of themselves and the doors did not fly open at her approach. Those thick-crowding cares and drudgeries which serve as merciful screens between so many discordant natures would have been as intolerable to her as was to Amherst the great glare of leisure in which he and she were now confronted.

He saw that Bessy was in the state of propitiatory eagerness which always followed on her gaining a point in their long duel; and he could guess that she was tremulously anxious not only to make up to him, by all the arts she knew, for the sacrifice she had exacted, but also to conceal from every one the fact that, as Mr. Langhope bluntly put it, he had been “brought to terms.” Amherst was touched by her efforts, and half-ashamed of his own inability to respond to them. But his mind, released from its normal preoccupations, had become a dangerous instrument of analysis and disintegration, and conditions which, a few months before, he might have accepted with the wholesome tolerance of the busy man, now pressed on him unendurably. He saw that he and his wife were really face to face for the first time since their marriage. Hitherto something had always intervened between them — first the spell of her grace and beauty, and the brief joy of her participation in his work; then the sorrow of their child’s death, and after that the temporary exhilaration of carrying out his ideas at Westmore — but now that the last of these veils had been torn away they faced each other as strangers.

The habit of keeping factory hours always drove Amherst forth long before his wife’s day began, and in the course of one of his early tramps he met Miss Brent and Cicely setting out for a distant swamp where rumour had it that a rare native orchid might be found. Justine’s sylvan tastes had developed in the little girl a passion for such pillaging expeditions, and Cicely, who had discovered that her step-father knew almost as much about birds and squirrels as Miss Brent did about flowers, was not to be appeased till Amherst had scrambled into the pony-cart, wedging his long legs between a fern-box and a lunch-basket, and balancing a Scotch terrier’s telescopic body across his knees.

The season was so mild that only one or two light windless frosts had singed the foliage of oaks and beeches, and gilded the roadsides with a smooth carpeting of maple leaves. The morning haze rose like smoke from burnt-out pyres of sumach and sugar-maple; a silver bloom lay on the furrows of the ploughed fields; and now and then, as they drove on, the wooded road showed at its end a tarnished disk of light, where sea and sky were merged.

At length they left the road for a winding track through scrub-oaks and glossy thickets of mountain-laurel; the track died out at the foot of a wooded knoll, and clambering along its base they came upon the swamp. There it lay in charmed solitude, shut in by a tawny growth of larch and swamp-maple, its edges burnt out to smouldering shades of russet, ember-red and ashen-grey, while the quaking centre still preserved a jewel-like green, where hidden lanes of moisture wound between islets tufted with swamp-cranberry and with the charred browns of fern and wild rose and bay. Sodden earth and decaying branches gave forth a strange sweet odour, as of the aromatic essences embalming a dead summer; and the air charged with this scent was so still that the snapping of witch-hazel pods, the drop of a nut, the leap of a startled frog, pricked the silence with separate points of sound.

The pony made fast, the terrier released, and fern-box and lunch-basket slung over Amherst’s shoulder, the three explorers set forth on their journey. Amherst, as became his sex, went first; but after a few absent-minded plunges into the sedgy depths between the islets, he was ordered to relinquish his command and fall to the rear, where he might perform the humbler service of occasionally lifting Cicely over unspannable gulfs of moisture.

Justine, leading the way, guided them across the treacherous surface as fearlessly as a king-fisher, lighting instinctively on every grass-tussock and submerged tree-stump of the uncertain path. Now and then she paused, her feet drawn close on their narrow perch, and her slender body swaying over as she reached down for some rare growth detected among the withered reeds and grasses; then she would right herself again by a backward movement as natural as the upward spring of a branch — so free and flexible in all her motions that she seemed akin to the swaying reeds and curving brambles which caught at her as she passed.

At length the explorers reached the mossy corner where the orchids grew, and Cicely, securely balanced on a fallen tree-trunk, was allowed to dig the coveted roots. When they had been packed away, it was felt that this culminating moment must be celebrated with immediate libations of jam and milk; and having climbed to a dry slope among the pepper-bushes, the party fell on the contents of the lunch-basket. It was just the hour when Bessy’s maid was carrying her breakfast-tray, with its delicate service of old silver and porcelain, into the darkened bed-room at Lynbrook; but early rising and hard scrambling had whetted the appetites of the naturalists, and the nursery fare which Cicely spread before them seemed a sumptuous reward for their toil.

“I do like this kind of picnic much better than the ones where mother takes all the footmen, and the mayonnaise has to be scraped off things before I can eat them,” Cicely declared, lifting her foaming mouth from a beaker of milk.

Amherst, lighting his pipe, stretched himself contentedly among the pepper-bushes, steeped in that unreflecting peace which is shed into some hearts by communion with trees and sky. He too was glad to get away from the footmen and the mayonnaise, and he imagined that his stepdaughter’s exclamation summed up all the reasons for his happiness. The boyish wood-craft which he had cultivated in order to encourage the same taste in his factory lads came to life in this sudden return to nature, and he redeemed his clumsiness in crossing the swamp by spying a marsh-wren’s nest that had escaped Justine, and detecting in a swiftly-flitting olive-brown bird a belated tanager in autumn incognito.

Cicely sat rapt while he pictured the bird’s winter pilgrimage, with glimpses of the seas and islands that fled beneath him till his long southern flight ended in the dim glades of the equatorial forests.

“Oh, what a good life — how I should like to be a wander-bird, and look down people’s chimneys twice a year!” Justine laughed, tilting her head back to catch a last glimpse of the tanager.

The sun beamed full on their ledge from a sky of misty blue, and she had thrown aside her hat, uncovering her thick waves of hair, blue-black in the hollows, with warm rusty edges where they took the light. Cicely dragged down a plumy spray of traveller’s joy and wound it above her friend’s forehead; and thus wreathed, with her bright pallour relieved against the dusky autumn tints, Justine looked like a wood-spirit who had absorbed into herself the last golden juices of the year.

She leaned back laughing against a tree-trunk, pelting Cicely with witch-hazel pods, making the terrier waltz for scraps of ginger-bread, and breaking off now and then to imitate, with her clear full notes, the call of some hidden marsh-bird, or the scolding chatter of a squirrel in the scrub-oaks.

“Is that what you’d like most about the journey — looking down the chimneys?” Amherst asked with a smile.

“Oh, I don’t know — I should love it all! Think of the joy of skimming over half the earth — seeing it born again out of darkness every morning! Sometimes, when I’ve been up all night with a patient, and have seen the world come back to me like that, I’ve been almost mad with its beauty; and then the thought that I’ve never seen more than a little corner of it makes me feel as if I were chained. But I think if I had wings I should choose to be a house-swallow; and then, after I’d had my fill of wonders, I should come back to my familiar corner, and my house full of busy humdrum people, and fly low to warn them of rain, and wheel up high to show them it was good haying weather, and know what was going on in every room in the house, and every house in the village; and all the while I should be hugging my wonderful big secret — the secret of snow-plains and burning deserts, and coral islands and buried cities — and should put it all into my chatter under the eaves, that the people in the house were always too busy to stop and listen to — and when winter came I’m sure I should hate to leave them, even to go back to my great Brazilian forests full of orchids and monkeys!”

“But, Justine, in winter you could take care of the monkeys,” the practical Cicely suggested.

“Yes — and that would remind me of home!” Justine cried, swinging about to pinch the little girl’s chin.

She was in one of the buoyant moods when the spirit of life caught her in its grip, and shook and tossed her on its mighty waves as a sea-bird is tossed through the spray of flying rollers. At such moments all the light and music of the world seemed distilled into her veins, and forced up in bubbles of laughter to her lips and eyes. Amherst had never seen her thus, and he watched her with the sense of relaxation which the contact of limpid gaiety brings to a mind obscured by failure and self-distrust. The world was not so dark a place after all, if such springs of merriment could well up in a heart as sensitive as hers to the burden and toil of existence.

“Isn’t it strange,” she went on with a sudden drop to gravity, “that the bird whose wings carry him farthest and show him the most wonderful things, is the one who always comes back to the eaves, and is happiest in the thick of everyday life?”

Her eyes met Amherst’s. “It seems to me,” he said, “that you’re like that yourself — loving long flights, yet happiest in the thick of life.”

She raised her dark brows laughingly. “So I imagine — but then you see I’ve never had the long flight!”

Amherst smiled. “Ah, there it is — one never knows — one never says, This is the moment! because, however good it is, it always seems the door to a better one beyond. Faust never said it till the end, when he’d nothing left of all he began by thinking worth while; and then, with what a difference it was said!”

She pondered. “Yes — but it was the best, after all — the moment in which he had nothing left. . . . ”

“Oh,” Cicely broke in suddenly, “do look at the squirrel up there! See, father — he’s off! Let’s follow him!”

As she crouched there, with head thrown back, and sparkling lips and eyes, her fair hair — of her mother’s very hue — making a shining haze about her face, Amherst recalled the winter evening at Hopewood, when he and Bessy had tracked the grey squirrel under the snowy beeches. Scarcely three years ago — and how bitter memory had turned! A chilly cloud spread over his spirit, reducing everything once more to the leaden hue of reality. . . .

“It’s too late for any more adventures — we must be going,” he said.

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