Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXI

IN the first reaction from her brief delusion about Stephen Wyant, Justine accepted with a good grace the necessity of staying on at Lynbrook. Though she was now well enough to return to her regular work, her talk with Amherst had made her feel that, for the present, she could be of more use by remaining with Bessy; and she was not sorry to have a farther period of delay and reflection before taking the next step in her life. These at least were the reasons she gave herself for deciding not to leave; and if any less ostensible lurked beneath, they were not as yet visible even to her searching self-scrutiny.

At first she was embarrassed by the obligation of meeting Dr. Wyant, on whom her definite refusal had produced an effect for which she could not hold herself blameless. She had not kept her promise of seeing him on the day after their encounter at the post-office, but had written, instead, in terms which obviously made such a meeting unnecessary. But all her efforts to soften the abruptness of her answer could not conceal, from either herself or her suitor, that it was not the one she had led him to expect; and she foresaw that if she remained at Lynbrook she could not escape a scene of recrimination.

When the scene took place, Wyant’s part in it went far toward justifying her decision; yet his vehement reproaches contained a sufficient core of truth to humble her pride. It was lucky for her somewhat exaggerated sense of fairness that he overshot the mark by charging her with a coquetry of which she knew herself innocent, and laying on her the responsibility for any follies to which her rejection might drive him. Such threats, as a rule, no longer move the feminine imagination; yet Justine’s pity for all forms of weakness made her recognize, in the very heat of her contempt for Wyant, that his reproaches were not the mere cry of wounded vanity but the appeal of a nature conscious of its lack of recuperative power. It seemed to her as though she had done him irreparable harm, and the feeling might have betrayed her into too great a show of compassion had she not been restrained by a salutary fear of the result.

The state of Bessy’s nerves necessitated frequent visits from her physician, but Justine, on these occasions, could usually shelter herself behind the professional reserve which kept even Wyant from any open expression of feeling. One day, however, they chanced to find themselves alone before Bessy’s return from her ride. The servant had ushered Wyant into the library where Justine was writing, and when she had replied to his enquiries about his patient they found themselves face to face with an awkward period of waiting. Justine was too proud to cut it short by leaving the room; but Wyant answered her commonplaces at random, stirring uneasily to and fro between window and fireside, and at length halting behind the table at which she sat.

“May I ask how much longer you mean to stay here?” he said in a low voice, his eyes darkening under the sullen jut of the brows.

As she glanced up in surprise she noticed for the first time an odd contraction of his pupils, and the discovery, familiar enough in her professional experience, made her disregard the abruptness of his question and softened the tone in which she answered. “I hardly know — I suppose as long as I am needed.”

Wyant laughed. “Needed by whom? By John Amherst?”

A moment passed before Justine took in the full significance of the retort; then the blood rushed to her face. “Yes — I believe both Mr. and Mrs. Amherst need me,” she answered, keeping her eyes on his; and Wyant laughed again.

“You didn’t think so till Amherst came back from Hanaford. His return seems to have changed your plans in several respects.”

She looked away from him, for even now his eyes moved her to pity and self-reproach. “Dr. Wyant, you are not well; why do you wait to see Mrs. Amherst?” she said.

He stared at her and then his glance fell. “I’m much obliged — I’m as well as usual,” he muttered, pushing the hair from his forehead with a shaking hand; and at that moment the sound of Bessy’s voice gave Justine a pretext for escape.

In her own room she sank for a moment under a rush of self-disgust; but it soon receded before the saner forces of her nature, leaving only a residue of pity for the poor creature whose secret she had surprised. She had never before suspected Wyant of taking a drug, nor did she now suppose that he did so habitually; but to see him even momentarily under such an influence explained her instinctive sense of his weakness. She felt now that what would have been an insult on other lips was only a cry of distress from his; and once more she blamed herself and forgave him.

But if she had been inclined to any morbidness of self-reproach she would have been saved from it by other cares. For the moment she was more concerned with Bessy’s fate than with her own — her poor friend seemed to have so much more at stake, and so much less strength to bring to the defence of her happiness. Justine was always saved from any excess of self-compassion by the sense, within herself, of abounding forces of growth and self-renewal, as though from every lopped aspiration a fresh shoot of energy must spring; but she felt that Bessy had no such sources of renovation, and that every disappointment left an arid spot in her soul.

Even without her friend’s confidences, Justine would have had no difficulty in following the successive stages of the Amhersts’ inner history. She knew that Amherst had virtually resigned his rule at Westmore, and that his wife, in return for the sacrifice, was trying to conform to the way of life she thought he preferred; and the futility of both attempts was more visible to Justine than to either of the two concerned. She saw that the failure of the Amhersts’ marriage lay not in any accident of outward circumstances but in the lack of all natural points of contact. As she put it to herself, they met neither underfoot nor overhead: practical necessities united them no more than imaginative joys.

There were moments when Justine thought Amherst hard to Bessy, as she suspected that he had once been hard to his mother — as the leader of men must perhaps always be hard to the hampering sex. Yet she did justice to his efforts to accept the irretrievable, and to waken in his wife some capacity for sharing in his minor interests, since she had none of her own with which to fill their days.

Amherst had always been a reader; not, like Justine herself, a flame-like devourer of the page, but a slow absorber of its essence; and in the early days of his marriage he had fancied it would be easy to make Bessy share this taste. Though his mother was not a bookish woman, he had breathed at her side an air rich in allusion and filled with the bright presences of romance; and he had always regarded this commerce of the imagination as one of the normal conditions of life. The discovery that there were no books at Lynbrook save a few morocco “sets” imprisoned behind the brass trellisings of the library had been one of the many surprises of his new state. But in his first months with Bessy there was no room for books, and if he thought of the matter it was only in a glancing vision of future evenings, when he and she, in the calm afterglow of happiness, should lean together over some cherished page. Her lack of response to any reference outside the small circle of daily facts had long since dispelled that vision; but now that his own mind felt the need of inner sustenance he began to ask himself whether he might not have done more to rouse her imagination. During the long evenings over the library fire he tried to lead the talk to books, with a parenthesis, now and again, from the page beneath his eye; and Bessy met the experiment with conciliatory eagerness. She showed, in especial, a hopeful but misleading preference for poetry, leaning back with dreaming lids and lovely parted lips while he rolled out the immortal measures; but her outward signs of attention never ripened into any expression of opinion, or any after-allusion to what she heard, and before long he discovered that Justine Brent was his only listener. It was to her that the words he read began to be unconsciously addressed; her comments directed him in his choice of subjects, and the ensuing discussions restored him to some semblance of mental activity.

Bessy, true to her new rôle of acquiescence, shone silently on this interchange of ideas; Amherst even detected in her a vague admiration for his power of conversing on subjects which she regarded as abstruse; and this childlike approval, combined with her submission to his will, deluded him with a sense of recovered power over her. He could not but note that the new phase in their relations had coincided with his first assertion of mastery; and he rashly concluded that, with the removal of the influences tending to separate them, his wife might gradually be won back to her earlier sympathy with his views.

To accept this theory was to apply it; for nothing could long divert Amherst from his main purpose, and all the thwarted strength of his will was only gathering to itself fresh stores of energy. He had never been a skilful lover, for no woman had as yet stirred in him those feelings which call the finer perceptions into play; and there was no instinct to tell him that Bessy’s sudden conformity to his wishes was as unreasoning as her surrender to his first kiss. He fancied that he and she were at length reaching some semblance of that moral harmony which should grow out of the physical accord, and that, poor and incomplete as the understanding was, it must lift and strengthen their relation.

He waited till early winter had brought solitude to Lynbrook, dispersing the hunting colony to various points of the compass, and sending Mr. Langhope to Egypt and the Riviera, while Mrs. Ansell, as usual, took up her annual tour of a social circuit whose extreme points were marked by Boston and Baltimore — and then he made his final appeal to his wife.

His pretext for speaking was a letter from Duplain, definitely announcing his resolve not to remain at Westmore. A year earlier Amherst, deeply moved by the letter, would have given it to his wife in the hope of its producing the same effect on her. He knew better now — he had learned her instinct for detecting “business” under every serious call on her attention. His only hope, as always, was to reach her through the personal appeal; and he put before her the fact of Duplain’s withdrawal as the open victory of his antagonists. But he saw at once that even this could not infuse new life into the question.

“If I go back he’ll stay — I can hold him, can gain time till things take a turn,” he urged.

“Another? I thought they were definitely settled,” she objected languidly.

“No — they’re not; they can’t be, on such a basis,” Amherst broke out with sudden emphasis. He walked across the room, and came back to her side with a determined face. “It’s a delusion, a deception,” he exclaimed, “to think I can stand by any longer and see things going to ruin at Westmore! If I’ve made you think so, I’ve unconsciously deceived us both. As long as you’re my wife we’ve only one honour between us, and that honour is mine to take care of.”

“Honour? What an odd expression!” she said with a forced laugh, and a little tinge of pink in her cheek. “You speak as if I had — had made myself talked about — when you know I’ve never even looked at another man!”

“Another man?” Amherst looked at her in wonder. “Good God! Can’t you conceive of any vow to be kept between husband and wife but the primitive one of bodily fidelity? Heaven knows I’ve never looked at another woman — but, by my reading of our compact, I shouldn’t be keeping faith with you if I didn’t help you to keep faith with better things. And you owe me the same help — the same chance to rise through you, and not sink by you — else we’ve betrayed each other more deeply than any adultery could make us!”

She had drawn back, turning pale again, and shrinking a little at the sound of words which, except when heard in church, she vaguely associated with oaths, slammed doors, and other evidences of ill-breeding; but Amherst had been swept too far on the flood of his indignation to be checked by such small signs of disapproval.

“You’ll say that what I’m asking you is to give me back the free use of your money. Well! Why not? Is it so much for a wife to give? I know you all think that a man who marries a rich woman forfeits his self-respect if he spends a penny without her approval. But that’s because money is so sacred to you all! It seems to me the least important thing that a woman entrusts to her husband. What of her dreams and her hopes, her belief in justice and goodness and decency? If he takes those and destroys them, he’d better have had a mill-stone about his neck. But nobody has a word to say till he touches her dividends — then he’s a calculating brute who has married her for her fortune!”

He had come close again, facing her with outstretched hands, half-commanding, half in appeal. “Don’t you see that I can’t go on in this way — that I’ve no right to let you keep me from Westmore?”

Bessy was looking at him coldly, under the half-dropped lids of indifference. “I hardly know what you mean — you use such peculiar words; but I don’t see why you should expect me to give up all the ideas I was brought up in. Our standards are different — but why should yours always be right?”

“You believed they were right when you married me — have they changed since then?”

“No; but —— ” Her face seemed to harden and contract into a small expressionless mask, in which he could no longer read anything but blank opposition to his will.

“You trusted my judgment not long ago,” he went on, “when I asked you to give up seeing Mrs. Carbury —— ”

She flushed, but with anger, not compunction. “It seems to me that should be a reason for your not asking me to make other sacrifices! When I gave up Blanche I thought you would see that I wanted to please you — and that you would do something for me in return. . . . ”

Amherst interrupted her with a laugh. “Thank you for telling me your real reasons. I was fool enough to think you acted from conviction — not that you were simply striking a bargain —— ”

He broke off, and they looked at each other with a kind of fear, each hearing between them the echo of irreparable words. Amherst’s only clear feeling was that he must not speak again till he had beaten down the horrible sensation in his breast — the rage of hate which had him in its grip, and which made him almost afraid, while it lasted, to let his eyes rest on the fair weak creature before him. Bessy, too, was in the clutch of a mute anger which slowly poured its benumbing current around her heart. Strong waves of passion did not quicken her vitality: she grew inert and cold under their shock. Only one little pulse of self-pity continued to beat in her, trembling out at last on the cry: “Ah, I know it’s not because you care so much for Westmore — it’s only because you want to get away from me!”

Amherst stared as if her words had flashed a light into the darkest windings of his misery. “Yes — I want to get away . . . ” he said; and he turned and walked out of the room.

He went down to the smoking-room, and ringing for a servant, ordered his horse to be saddled. The foot-man who answered his summons brought the afternoon’s mail, and Amherst, throwing himself down on the sofa, began to tear open his letters while he waited.

He ran through the first few without knowing what he read; but presently his attention was arrested by the hand-writing of a man he had known well in college, and who had lately come into possession of a large cotton-mill in the South. He wrote now to ask if Amherst could recommend a good manager — “not one of your old routine men, but a young fellow with the new ideas. Things have been in pretty bad shape down here,” the writer added, “and now that I’m in possession I want to see what can be done to civilize the place”; and he went on to urge that Amherst should come down himself to inspect the mills, and propose such improvements as his experience suggested. “We’ve all heard of the great things you’re doing at Westmore,” the letter ended; and Amherst cast it from him with a groan. . . .

It was Duplain’s chance, of course . . . that was his first thought. He took up the letter and read it over. He knew the man who wrote — no sentimentalist seeking emotional variety from vague philanthropic experiments, but a serious student of social conditions, now unexpectedly provided with the opportunity to apply his ideas. Yes, it was Duplain’s chance — if indeed it might not be his own! . . . Amherst sat upright, dazzled by the thought. Why Duplain — why not himself? Bessy had spoken the illuminating word — what he wanted was to get away — to get away at any cost! Escape had become his one thought: escape from the bondage of Lynbrook, from the bitter memory of his failure at Westmore; and here was the chance to escape back into life — into independence, activity and usefulness! Every atrophied faculty in him suddenly started from its torpor, and his brain throbbed with the pain of the awakening. . . . The servant came to tell him that his horse waited, and he sprang up, took his riding-whip from the rack, stared a moment, absently, after the man’s retreating back, and then dropped down again on the sofa. . . .

What was there to keep him from accepting? His wife’s affection was dead — if her sentimental fancy for him had ever deserved the name! And his passing mastery over her was gone too — he smiled to remember that, hardly two hours earlier, he had been fatuous enough to think he could still regain it! Now he said to himself that she would sooner desert a friend to please him than sacrifice a fraction of her income; and the discovery cast a stain of sordidness on their whole relation. He could still imagine struggling to win her back from another man, or even to save her from some folly into which mistaken judgment or perverted enthusiasm might have hurried her; but to go on battling against the dull unimaginative subservience to personal luxury — the slavery to houses and servants and clothes — ah, no, while he had any fight left in him it was worth spending in a better cause than that!

Through the open window he could hear, in the mild December stillness, his horse’s feet coming and going on the gravel. Her horse, led up and down by her servant, at the door of her house! . . . The sound symbolized his whole future . . . the situation his marriage had made for him, and to which he must henceforth bend, unless he broke with it then and there. . . . He tried to look ahead, to follow up, one by one, the consequences of such a break. That it would be final he had no doubt. There are natures which seem to be drawn closer by dissension, to depend, for the renewal of understanding, on the spark of generosity and compunction that anger strikes out of both; but Amherst knew that between himself and his wife no such clearing of the moral atmosphere was possible. The indignation which left him with tingling nerves and a burning need of some immediate escape into action, crystallized in Bessy into a hard kernel of obstinacy, into which, after each fresh collision, he felt that a little more of herself had been absorbed. . . . No, the break between them would be final — if he went now he would not come back. And it flashed across him that this solution might have been foreseen by his wife — might even have been deliberately planned and led up to by those about her. His father-in-law had never liked him — the disturbing waves of his activity had rippled even the sheltered surface of Mr. Langhope’s existence. He must have been horribly in their way! Well — it was not too late to take himself out of it. In Bessy’s circle the severing of such ties was regarded as an expensive but unhazardous piece of surgery — nobody bled to death of the wound. . . . The footman came back to remind him that his horse was waiting, and Amherst rose to his feet.

“Send him back to the stable,” he said with a glance at his watch, “and order a trap to take me to the next train.”

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