Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

II

WHEN Justine Brent emerged from the Hope Hospital the October dusk had fallen and the wide suburban street was almost dark, except when the illuminated bulk of an electric car flashed by under the maples.

She crossed the tracks and approached the narrower thoroughfare where Amherst awaited her. He hung back a moment, and she was amused to see that he failed to identify the uniformed nurse with the girl in her trim dark dress, soberly complete in all its accessories, who advanced to him, smiling under her little veil.

“Thank you,” he said as he turned and walked beside her. “Is this your way?”

“I am staying in Oak Street. But it’s just as short to go by Maplewood Avenue.”

“Yes; and quieter.”

For a few yards they walked on in silence, their long steps falling naturally into time, though Amherst was somewhat taller than his companion.

At length he said: “I suppose you know nothing about the relation between Hope Hospital and the Westmore Mills.”

“Only that the hospital was endowed by one of the Westmore family.”

“Yes; an old Miss Hope, a great-aunt of Westmore’s. But there is more than that between them — all kinds of subterranean passages.” He paused, and began again: “For instance, Dr. Disbrow married the sister of our manager’s wife.”

“Your chief at the mills?”

“Yes,” he said with a slight grimace. “So you see, if Truscomb — the manager — thinks one of the mill-hands is only slightly injured, it’s natural that his brother-in-law, Dr. Disbrow, should take an optimistic view of the case.”

“Natural? I don’t know —— ”

“Don’t you think it’s natural that a man should be influenced by his wife?”

“Not where his professional honour is concerned.”

Amherst smiled. “That sounds very young — if you’ll excuse my saying so. Well, I won’t go on to insinuate that, Truscomb being high in favour with the Westmores, and the Westmores having a lien on the hospital, Disbrow’s position there is also bound up with his taking — more or less — the same view as Truscomb’s.”

Miss Brent had paused abruptly on the deserted pavement.

“No, don’t go on — if you want me to think well of you,” she flashed out.

Amherst met the thrust composedly, perceiving, as she turned to face him, that what she resented was not so much his insinuation against his superiors as his allusion to the youthfulness of her sentiments. She was, in fact, as he now noticed, still young enough to dislike being excused for her youth. In her severe uniform of blue linen, her dusky skin darkened by the nurse’s cap, and by the pale background of the hospital walls, she had seemed older, more competent and experienced; but he now saw how fresh was the pale curve of her cheek, and how smooth the brow clasped in close waves of hair.

“I began at the wrong end,” he acknowledged. “But let me put Dillon’s case before you dismiss me.”

She softened. “It is only because of my interest in that poor fellow that I am here —— ”

“Because you think he needs help — and that you can help him?”

But she held back once more. “Please tell me about him first,” she said, walking on.

Amherst met the request with another question. “I wonder how much you know about factory life?”

“Oh, next to nothing. Just what I’ve managed to pick up in these two days at the hospital.”

He glanced at her small determined profile under its dark roll of hair, and said, half to himself: “That might be a good deal.”

She took no notice of this, and he went on: “Well, I won’t try to put the general situation before you, though Dillon’s accident is really the result of it. He works in the carding room, and on the day of the accident his ‘card’ stopped suddenly, and he put his hand behind him to get a tool he needed out of his trouser-pocket. He reached back a little too far, and the card behind him caught his hand in its million of diamond-pointed wires. Truscomb and the overseer of the room maintain that the accident was due to his own carelessness; but the hands say that it was caused by the fact of the cards being too near together, and that just such an accident was bound to happen sooner or later.”

Miss Brent drew an eager breath. “And what do you say?”

“That they’re right: the carding-room is shamefully overcrowded. Dillon hasn’t been in it long — he worked his way up at the mills from being a bobbin-boy — and he hadn’t yet learned how cautious a man must be in there. The cards are so close to each other that even the old hands run narrow risks, and it takes the cleverest operative some time to learn that he must calculate every movement to a fraction of an inch.”

“But why do they crowd the rooms in that way?”

“To get the maximum of profit out of the minimum of floor-space. It costs more to increase the floor-space than to maim an operative now and then.”

“I see. Go on,” she murmured.

“That’s the first point; here is the second. Dr. Disbrow told Truscomb this morning that Dillon’s hand would certainly be saved, and that he might get back to work in a couple of months if the company would present him with an artificial finger or two.”

Miss Brent faced him with a flush of indignation. “Mr. Amherst — who gave you this version of Dr. Disbrow’s report?”

“The manager himself.”

“Verbally?”

“No — he showed me Disbrow’s letter.”

For a moment or two they walked on silently through the quiet street; then she said, in a voice still stirred with feeling: “As I told you this afternoon, Dr. Disbrow has said nothing in my hearing.”

“And Mrs. Ogan?”

“Oh, Mrs. Ogan — ” Her voice broke in a ripple of irony. “Mrs. Ogan ‘feels it to be such a beautiful dispensation, my dear, that, owing to a death that very morning in the surgical ward, we happened to have a bed ready for the poor man within three hours of the accident.’” She had exchanged her deep throat-tones for a high reedy note which perfectly simulated the matron’s lady-like inflections.

Amherst, at the change, turned on her with a boyish burst of laughter: she joined in it, and for a moment they were blent in that closest of unions, the discovery of a common fund of humour.

She was the first to grow grave. “That three hours’ delay didn’t help matters — how is it there is no emergency hospital at the mills?”

Amherst laughed again, but in a different key. “That’s part of the larger question, which we haven’t time for now.” He waited a moment, and then added: “You’ve not yet given me your own impression of Dillon’s case.”

“You shall have it, if you saw that letter. Dillon will certainly lose his hand — and probably the whole arm.” She spoke with a thrilling of her slight frame that transformed the dispassionate professional into a girl shaken with indignant pity.

Amherst stood still before her. “Good God! Never anything but useless lumber?”

“Never —— ”

“And he won’t die?”

“Alas!”

“He has a consumptive wife and three children. She ruined her health swallowing cotton-dust at the factory,” Amherst continued.

“So she told me yesterday.”

He turned in surprise. “You’ve had a talk with her?”

“I went out to Westmore last night. I was haunted by her face when she came to the hospital. She looks forty, but she told me she was only twenty-six.” Miss Brent paused to steady her voice. “It’s the curse of my trade that it’s always tempting me to interfere in cases where I can do no possible good. The fact is, I’m not fit to be a nurse — I shall live and die a wretched sentimentalist!” she ended, with an angry dash at the tears on her veil.

Her companion walked on in silence till she had regained her composure. Then he said: “What did you think of Westmore?”

“I think it’s one of the worst places I ever saw — and I am not unused to slums. It looks so dead. The slums of big cities are much more cheerful.”

He made no answer, and after a moment she asked: “Does the cotton-dust always affect the lungs?”

“It’s likely to, where there is the least phthisical tendency. But of course the harm could be immensely reduced by taking up the old rough floors which hold the dust, and by thorough cleanliness and ventilation.”

“What does the company do in such cases? Where an operative breaks down at twenty-five?”

“The company says there was a phthisical tendency.”

“And will they give nothing in return for the two lives they have taken?”

“They will probably pay for Dillon’s care at the hospital, and they have taken the wife back as a scrubber.”

“To clean those uncleanable floors? She’s not fit for it!”

“She must work, fit for it or not; and there is less strain in scrubbing than in bending over the looms or cards. The pay is lower, of course, but she’s very grateful for being taken back at all, now that she’s no longer a first-class worker.”

Miss Brent’s face glowed with a fine wrath. “She can’t possibly stand more than two or three months of it without breaking down!”

“Well, you see they’ve told her that in less than that time her husband will be at work again.”

“And what will the company do for them when the wife is a hopeless invalid, and the husband a cripple?”

Amherst again uttered the dry laugh with which he had met her suggestion of an emergency hospital. “I know what I should do if I could get anywhere near Dillon — give him an overdose of morphine, and let the widow collect his life-insurance, and make a fresh start.”

She looked at him curiously. “Should you, I wonder?”

“If I saw the suffering as you see it, and knew the circumstances as I know them, I believe I should feel justified — ” He broke off. “In your work, don’t you ever feel tempted to set a poor devil free?”

She mused. “One might . . . but perhaps the professional instinct to save would always come first.”

“To save — what? When all the good of life is gone?”

“I daresay,” she sighed, “poor Dillon would do it himself if he could — when he realizes that all the good is gone.”

“Yes, but he can’t do it himself; and it’s the irony of such cases that his employers, after ruining his life, will do all they can to patch up the ruins.”

“But that at least ought to count in their favour.”

“Perhaps; if — ” He paused, as though reluctant to lay himself open once more to the charge of uncharitableness; and suddenly she exclaimed, looking about her: “I didn’t notice we had walked so far down Maplewood Avenue!”

They had turned a few minutes previously into the wide thoroughfare crowning the high ground which is covered by the residential quarter of Hanaford. Here the spacious houses, withdrawn behind shrubberies and lawns, revealed in their silhouettes every form of architectural experiment, from the symmetrical pre-Revolutionary structure, with its classic portico and clipped box-borders, to the latest outbreak in boulders and Moorish tiles.

Amherst followed his companion’s glance with surprise. “We have gone a block or two out of our way. I always forget where I am when I’m talking about anything that interests me.”

Miss Brent looked at her watch. “My friends don’t dine till seven, and I can get home in time by taking a Grove Street car,” she said.

“If you don’t mind walking a little farther you can take a Liberty Street car instead. They run oftener, and you will get home just as soon.”

She made a gesture of assent, and as they walked on he continued: “I haven’t yet explained why I am so anxious to get an unbiassed opinion of Dillon’s case.”

She looked at him in surprise. “What you’ve told me about Dr. Disbrow and your manager is surely enough.”

“Well, hardly, considering that I am Truscomb’s subordinate. I shouldn’t have committed a breach of professional etiquette, or asked you to do so, if I hadn’t a hope of bettering things; but I have, and that is why I’ve held on at Westmore for the last few months, instead of getting out of it altogether.”

“I’m glad of that,” she said quickly.

“The owner of the mills — young Richard Westmore — died last winter,” he went on, “and my hope — it’s no more — is that the new broom may sweep a little cleaner.”

“Who is the new broom?”

“Westmore left everything to his widow, and she is coming here to-morrow to look into the management of the mills.”

“Coming? She doesn’t live here, then?”

“At Hanaford? Heaven forbid! It’s an anomaly nowadays for the employer to live near the employed. The Westmores have always lived in New York — and I believe they have a big place on Long Island.”

“Well, at any rate she is coming, and that ought to be a good sign. Did she never show any interest in the mills during her husband’s life?”

“Not as far as I know. I’ve been at Westmore three years, and she’s not been seen there in my time. She is very young, and Westmore himself didn’t care. It was a case of inherited money. He drew the dividends, and Truscomb did the rest.”

Miss Brent reflected. “I don’t know much about the constitution of companies — but I suppose Mrs. Westmore doesn’t unite all the offices in her own person. Is there no one to stand between Truscomb and the operatives?”

“Oh, the company, on paper, shows the usual official hierarchy. Richard Westmore, of course, was president, and since his death the former treasurer — Halford Gaines — has replaced him, and his son, Westmore Gaines, has been appointed treasurer. You can see by the names that it’s all in the family. Halford Gaines married a Miss Westmore, and represents the clan at Hanaford — leads society, and keeps up the social credit of the name. As treasurer, Mr. Halford Gaines kept strictly to his special business, and always refused to interfere between Truscomb and the operatives. As president he will probably follow the same policy, the more so as it fits in with his inherited respect for the status quo, and his blissful ignorance of economics.”

“And the new treasurer — young Gaines? Is there no hope of his breaking away from the family tradition?”

“Westy Gaines has a better head than his father; but he hates Hanaford and the mills, and his chief object in life is to be taken for a New Yorker. So far he hasn’t been here much, except for the quarterly meetings, and his routine work is done by another cousin — you perceive that Westmore is a nest of nepotism.”

Miss Brent’s work among the poor had developed her interest in social problems, and she followed these details attentively.

“Well, the outlook is not encouraging, but perhaps Mrs. Westmore’s coming will make a change. I suppose she has more power than any one.”

“She might have, if she chose to exert it, for her husband was really the whole company. The official cousins hold only a few shares apiece.”

“Perhaps, then, her visit will open her eyes. Who knows but poor Dillon’s case may help others — prove a beautiful dispensation, as Mrs. Ogan would say?”

“It does come terribly pat as an illustration of some of the abuses I want to have remedied. The difficulty will be to get the lady’s ear. That’s her house we’re coming to, by the way.”

An electric street-lamp irradiated the leafless trees and stone gate-posts of the building before them. Though gardens extended behind it, the house stood so near the pavement that only two short flights of steps intervened between the gate-posts and the portico. Light shone from every window of the pompous rusticated façade — in the turreted “Tuscan villa” style of the ‘fifties — and as Miss Brent and Amherst approached, their advance was checked by a group of persons who were just descending from two carriages at the door.

The lamp-light showed every detail of dress and countenance in the party, which consisted of two men, one slightly lame, with a long white moustache and a distinguished nose, the other short, lean and professional, and of two ladies and their laden attendants.

“Why, that must be her party arriving!” Miss Brent exclaimed; and as she spoke the younger of the two ladies, turning back to her maid, exposed to the glare of the electric light a fair pale face shadowed by the projection of her widow’s veil.

“Is that Mrs. Westmore?” Miss Brent whispered; and as Amherst muttered: “I suppose so; I’ve never seen her —— ” she continued excitedly: “She looks so like — do you know what her name was before she married?”

He drew his brows together in a hopeless effort of remembrance. “I don’t know — I must have heard — but I never can recall people’s names.”

“That’s bad, for a leader of men!” she said mockingly, and he answered, as though touched on a sore point: “I mean people who don’t count. I never forget an operative’s name or face.”

“One can never tell who may be going to count,” she rejoined sententiously.

He dwelt on this in silence while they walked on catching as they passed a glimpse of the red-carpeted Westmore hall on which the glass doors were just being closed. At length he roused himself to ask: “Does Mrs. Westmore look like some one you know?”

“I fancied so — a girl who was at the Sacred Heart in Paris with me. But isn’t this my corner?” she exclaimed, as they turned into another street, down which a laden car was descending.

Its approach left them time for no more than a hurried hand-clasp, and when Miss Brent had been absorbed into the packed interior her companion, as his habit was, stood for a while where she had left him, gazing at some indefinite point in space; then, waking to a sudden consciousness of his surroundings, he walked off toward the centre of the town.

At the junction of two business streets he met an empty car marked “Westmore,” and springing into it, seated himself in a corner and drew out a pocket Shakespeare. He read on, indifferent to his surroundings, till the car left the asphalt streets and illuminated shop-fronts for a grey intermediate region of mud and macadam. Then he pocketed his volume and sat looking out into the gloom.

The houses grew less frequent, with darker gaps of night between; and the rare street-lamps shone on cracked pavements, crooked telegraph-poles, hoardings tapestried with patent-medicine posters, and all the mean desolation of an American industrial suburb. Farther on there came a weed-grown field or two, then a row of operatives’ houses, the showy gables of the “Eldorado” road-house — the only building in Westmore on which fresh paint was freely lavished — then the company “store,” the machine shops and other out-buildings, the vast forbidding bulk of the factories looming above the river-bend, and the sudden neatness of the manager’s turf and privet hedges. The scene was so familiar to Amherst that he had lost the habit of comparison, and his absorption in the moral and material needs of the workers sometimes made him forget the outward setting of their lives. But to-night he recalled the nurse’s comment — “it looks so dead” — and the phrase roused him to a fresh perception of the scene. With sudden disgust he saw the sordidness of it all — the poor monotonous houses, the trampled grass-banks, the lean dogs prowling in refuse-heaps, the reflection of a crooked gas-lamp in a stagnant loop of the river; and he asked himself how it was possible to put any sense of moral beauty into lives bounded forever by the low horizon of the factory. There is a fortuitous ugliness that has life and hope in it: the ugliness of overcrowded city streets, of the rush and drive of packed activities; but this out-spread meanness of the suburban working colony, uncircumscribed by any pressure of surrounding life, and sunk into blank acceptance of its isolation, its banishment from beauty and variety and surprise, seemed to Amherst the very negation of hope and life.

“She’s right,” he mused — “it’s dead — stone dead: there isn’t a drop of wholesome blood left in it.”

The Moosuc River valley, in the hollow of which, for that river’s sake, the Westmore mills had been planted, lingered in the memory of pre-industrial Hanaford as the pleasantest suburb of the town. Here, beyond a region of orchards and farm-houses, several “leading citizens” had placed, above the river-bank, their prim wood-cut “residences,” with porticoes and terraced lawns; and from the chief of these, Hopewood, brought into the Westmore family by the Miss Hope who had married an earlier Westmore, the grim mill-village had been carved. The pillared “residences” had, after this, inevitably fallen to base uses; but the old house at Hopewood, in its wooded grounds, remained, neglected but intact, beyond the first bend of the river, deserted as a dwelling but “held” in anticipation of rising values, when the inevitable growth of Westmore should increase the demand for small building lots. Whenever Amherst’s eyes were refreshed by the hanging foliage above the roofs of Westmore, he longed to convert the abandoned country-seat into a park and playground for the mill-hands; but he knew that the company counted on the gradual sale of Hopewood as a source of profit. No — the mill-town would not grow beautiful as it grew larger — rather, in obedience to the grim law of industrial prosperity, it would soon lose its one lingering grace and spread out in unmitigated ugliness, devouring green fields and shaded slopes like some insect-plague consuming the land. The conditions were familiar enough to Amherst; and their apparent inevitableness mocked the hopes he had based on Mrs. Westmore’s arrival.

“Where every stone is piled on another, through the whole stupid structure of selfishness and egotism, how can one be pulled out without making the whole thing topple? And whatever they’re blind to, they always see that,” he mused, reaching up for the strap of the car.

He walked a few yards beyond the manager’s house, and turned down a side street lined with scattered cottages. Approaching one of these by a gravelled path he pushed open the door, and entered a sitting-room where a green-shaded lamp shone pleasantly on bookshelves and a crowded writing-table.

A brisk little woman in black, laying down the evening paper as she rose, lifted her hands to his tall shoulders.

“Well, mother,” he said, stooping to her kiss.

“You’re late, John,” she smiled back at him, not reproachfully, but with affection.

She was a wonderfully compact and active creature, with face so young and hair so white that she looked as unreal as a stage mother till a close view revealed the fine lines that experience had drawn about her mouth and eyes. The eyes themselves, brightly black and glancing, had none of the veiled depths of her son’s gaze. Their look was outward, on a world which had dealt her hard blows and few favours, but in which her interest was still fresh, amused and unabated.

Amherst glanced at his watch. “Never mind — Duplain will be later still. I had to go into Hanaford, and he is replacing me at the office.”

“So much the better, dear: we can have a minute to ourselves. Sit down and tell me what kept you.”

She picked up her knitting as she spoke, having the kind of hands that find repose in ceaseless small activities. Her son could not remember a time when he had not seen those small hands in motion — shaping garments, darning rents, repairing furniture, exploring the inner economy of clocks. “I make a sort of rag-carpet of the odd minutes,” she had once explained to a friend who wondered at her turning to her needlework in the moment’s interval between other tasks.

Amherst threw himself wearily into a chair. “I was trying to find out something about Dillon’s case,” he said.

His mother turned a quick glance toward the door, rose to close it, and reseated herself.

“Well?”

“I managed to have a talk with his nurse when she went off duty this evening.”

“The nurse? I wonder you could get her to speak.”

“Luckily she’s not the regular incumbent, but a volunteer who happened to be here on a visit. As it was, I had some difficulty in making her talk — till I told her of Disbrow’s letter.”

Mrs. Amherst lifted her bright glance from the needles. “He’s very bad, then?”

“Hopelessly maimed!”

She shivered and cast down her eyes. “Do you suppose she really knows?”

“She struck me as quite competent to judge.”

“A volunteer, you say, here on a visit? What is her name?”

He raised his head with a vague look. “I never thought of asking her.”

Mrs. Amherst laughed. “How like you! Did she say with whom she was staying?”

“I think she said in Oak Street — but she didn’t mention any name.”

Mrs. Amherst wrinkled her brows thoughtfully. “I wonder if she’s not the thin dark girl I saw the other day with Mrs. Harry Dressel. Was she tall and rather handsome?”

“I don’t know,” murmured Amherst indifferently. As a rule he was humorously resigned to his mother’s habit of deserting the general for the particular, and following some irrelevant thread of association in utter disregard of the main issue. But to-night, preoccupied with his subject, and incapable of conceiving how anyone else could be unaffected by it, he resented her indifference as a sign of incurable frivolity.

“How she can live close to such suffering and forget it!” was his thought; then, with a movement of self-reproach, he remembered that the work flying through her fingers was to take shape as a garment for one of the infant Dillons. “She takes her pity out in action, like that quiet nurse, who was as cool as a drum-major till she took off her uniform — and then!” His face softened at the recollection of the girl’s outbreak. Much as he admired, in theory, the woman who kept a calm exterior in emergencies, he had all a man’s desire to know that the springs of feeling lay close to the unruffled surface.

Mrs. Amherst had risen and crossed over to his chair. She leaned on it a moment, pushing the tossed brown hair from his forehead.

“John, have you considered what you mean to do next?”

He threw back his head to meet her gaze.

“About this Dillon case,” she continued. “How are all these investigations going to help you?”

Their eyes rested on each other for a moment; then he said coldly: “You are afraid I am going to lose my place.”

She flushed like a girl and murmured: “It’s not the kind of place I ever wanted to see you in!”

“I know it,” he returned in a gentler tone, clasping one of the hands on his chair-back. “I ought to have followed a profession, like my grandfather; but my father’s blood was too strong in me. I should never have been content as anything but a working-man.”

“How can you call your father a working-man? He had a genius for mechanics, and if he had lived he would have been as great in his way as any statesman or lawyer.”

Amherst smiled. “Greater, to my thinking; but he gave me his hard-working hands without the genius to create with them. I wish I had inherited more from him, or less; but I must make the best of what I am, rather than try to be somebody else.” He laid her hand caressingly against his cheek. “It’s hard on you, mother — but you must bear with me.”

“I have never complained, John; but now you’ve chosen your work, it’s natural that I should want you to stick to it.”

He rose with an impatient gesture. “Never fear; I could easily get another job —— ”

“What? If Truscomb black-listed you? Do you forget that Scotch overseer who was here when we came?”

“And whom Truscomb hounded out of the trade? I remember him,” said Amherst grimly; “but I have an idea I am going to do the hounding this time.”

His mother sighed, but her reply was cut short by the noisy opening of the outer door. Amherst seemed to hear the sound with relief. “There’s Duplain,” he said, going into the passage; but on the threshold he encountered, not the young Alsatian overseer who boarded with them, but a small boy who said breathlessly: “Mr. Truscomb wants you to come down bimeby.”

“This evening? To the office?”

“No — he’s sick a-bed.”

The blood rushed to Amherst’s face, and he had to press his lips close to check an exclamation. “Say I’ll come as soon as I’ve had supper,” he said.

The boy vanished, and Amherst turned back to the sitting-room. “Truscomb’s ill — he has sent for me; and I saw Mrs. Westmore arriving tonight! Have supper, mother — we won’t wait for Duplain.” His face still glowed with excitement, and his eyes were dark with the concentration of his inward vision.

“Oh, John, John!” Mrs. Amherst sighed, crossing the passage to the kitchen.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/fruit_of_the_tree/chapter2.html

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