Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXII

WHEN Amherst woke, the next morning, in the hotel to which he had gone up from Lynbrook, he was oppressed by the sense that the hardest step he had to take still lay before him. It had been almost easy to decide that the moment of separation had come, for circumstances seemed to have closed every other issue from his unhappy situation; but how tell his wife of his decision? Amherst, to whom action was the first necessity of being, became a weak procrastinator when he was confronted by the need of writing instead of speaking.

To account for his abrupt departure from Lynbrook he had left word that he was called to town on business; but, since he did not mean to return, some farther explanation was now necessary, and he was paralyzed by the difficulty of writing. He had already telegraphed to his friend that he would be at the mills the next day; but the southern express did not leave till the afternoon, and he still had several hours in which to consider what he should say to his wife. To postpone the dreaded task, he invented the pretext of some business to be despatched, and taking the Subway to Wall Street consumed the morning in futile activities. But since the renunciation of his work at Westmore he had no active concern with the financial world, and by twelve o’clock he had exhausted his imaginary affairs and was journeying up town again. He left the train at Union Square, and walked along Fourth Avenue, now definitely resolved to go back to the hotel and write his letter before lunching.

At Twenty-sixth Street he had struck into Madison Avenue, and was striding onward with the fixed eye and aimless haste of the man who has empty hours to fill, when a hansom drew up ahead of him and Justine Brent sprang out. She was trimly dressed, as if for travel, with a small bag in her hand; but at sight of him she paused with a cry of pleasure.

“Oh, Mr. Amherst, I’m so glad! I was afraid I might not see you for goodbye.”

“For goodbye?” Amherst paused, embarrassed. How had she guessed that he did not mean to return to Lynbrook?

“You know,” she reminded him, “I’m going to some friends near Philadelphia for ten days” — and he remembered confusedly that a long time ago — probably yesterday morning — he had heard her speak of her projected visit.

“I had no idea,” she continued, “that you were coming up to town yesterday, or I should have tried to see you before you left. I wanted to ask you to send me a line if Bessy needs me — I’ll come back at once if she does.” Amherst continued to listen blankly, as if making a painful effort to regain some consciousness of what was being said to him, and she went on: “She seemed so nervous and poorly yesterday evening that I was sorry I had decided to go —— ”

Her intent gaze reminded him that the emotions of the last twenty-four hours must still be visible in his face; and the thought of what she might detect helped to restore his self-possession. “You must not think of giving up your visit,” he began hurriedly — he had meant to add “on account of Bessy,” but he found himself unable to utter his wife’s name.

Justine was still looking at him. “Oh, I’m sure everything will be all right,” she rejoined. “You go back this afternoon, I suppose? I’ve left you a little note, with my address, and I want you to promise —— ”

She paused, for Amherst had made a motion as though to interrupt her. The old confused sense that there must always be truth between them was struggling in him with the strong restraints of habit and character; and suddenly, before he was conscious of having decided to speak, he heard himself say: “I ought to tell you that I am not going back.”

“Not going back?” A flash of apprehension crossed Justine’s face. “Not till tomorrow, you mean?” she added, recovering herself.

Amherst hesitated, glancing vaguely up and down the street. At that noonday hour it was nearly deserted, and Justine’s driver dozed on his perch above the hansom. They could speak almost as openly as if they had been in one of the wood-paths at Lynbrook.

“Nor tomorrow,” Amherst said in a low voice. There was another pause before he added: “It may be some time before — ” He broke off, and then continued with an effort: “The fact is, I am thinking of going back to my old work.”

She caught him up with an exclamation of surprise and sympathy. “Your old work? You mean at —— ”

She was checked by the quick contraction of pain in his face. “Not that! I mean that I’m thinking of taking a new job — as manager of a Georgia mill. . . . It’s the only thing I know how to do, and I’ve got to do something — ” He forced a laugh. “The habit of work is incurable!”

Justine’s face had grown as grave as his. She hesitated a moment, looking down the street toward the angle of Madison Square, which was visible from the corner where they stood.

“Will you walk back to the square with me? Then we can sit down a moment.”

She began to move as she spoke, and he walked beside her in silence till they had gained the seat she pointed out. Her hansom trailed after them, drawing up at the corner.

As Amherst sat down beside her, Justine turned to him with an air of quiet resolution. “Mr. Amherst — will you let me ask you something? Is this a sudden decision?”

“Yes. I decided yesterday.”

“And Bessy ——?”

His glance dropped for the first time, but Justine pressed her point. “Bessy approves?”

“She — she will, I think — when she knows —— ”

“When she knows?” Her emotion sprang into her face. “When she knows? Then she does not — yet?”

“No. The offer came suddenly. I must go at once.”

“Without seeing her?” She cut him short with a quick commanding gesture. “Mr. Amherst, you can’t do this — you won’t do it! You will not go away without seeing Bessy!” she said.

Her eyes sought his and drew them upward, constraining them to meet the full beam of her rebuking gaze.

“I must do what seems best under the circumstances,” he answered hesitatingly. “She will hear from me, of course; I shall write today — and later —— ”

“Not later! Now — you will go back now to Lynbrook! Such things can’t be told in writing — if they must be said at all, they must be spoken. Don’t tell me that I don’t understand — or that I’m meddling in what doesn’t concern me. I don’t care a fig for that! I’ve always meddled in what didn’t concern me — I always shall, I suppose, till I die! And I understand enough to know that Bessy is very unhappy — and that you’re the wiser and stronger of the two. I know what it’s been to you to give up your work — to feel yourself useless,” she interrupted herself, with softening eyes, “and I know how you’ve tried . . . I’ve watched you . . . but Bessy has tried too; and even if you’ve both failed — if you’ve come to the end of your resources — it’s for you to face the fact, and help her face it — not to run away from it like this!”

Amherst sat silent under the assault of her eloquence. He was conscious of no instinctive resentment, no sense that she was, as she confessed, meddling in matters which did not concern her. His ebbing spirit was revived by the shock of an ardour like his own. She had not shrunk from calling him a coward — and it did him good to hear her call him so! Her words put life back into its true perspective, restored their meaning to obsolete terms: to truth and manliness and courage. He had lived so long among equivocations that he had forgotten how to look a fact in the face; but here was a woman who judged life by his own standards — and by those standards she had found him wanting!

Still, he could not forget the last bitter hours, or change his opinion as to the futility of attempting to remain at Lynbrook. He felt as strongly as ever the need of moral and mental liberation — the right to begin life again on his own terms. But Justine Brent had made him see that his first step toward self-assertion had been the inconsistent one of trying to evade its results.

“You are right — I will go back,” he said.

She thanked him with her eyes, as she had thanked him on the terrace at Lynbrook, on the autumn evening which had witnessed their first broken exchange of confidences; and he was struck once more with the change that feeling produced in her. Emotions flashed across her face like the sweep of sun-rent clouds over a quiet landscape, bringing out the gleam of hidden waters, the fervour of smouldering colours, all the subtle delicacies of modelling that are lost under the light of an open sky. And it was extraordinary how she could infuse into a principle the warmth and colour of a passion! If conduct, to most people, seemed a cold matter of social prudence or inherited habit, to her it was always the newly-discovered question of her own relation to life — as most women see the great issues only through their own wants and prejudices, so she seemed always to see her personal desires in the light of the larger claims.

“But I don’t think,” Amherst went on, “that anything can be said to convince me that I ought to alter my decision. These months of idleness have shown me that I’m one of the members of society who are a danger to the community if their noses are not kept to the grindstone —— ”

Justine lowered her eyes musingly, and he saw she was undergoing the reaction of constraint which always followed on her bursts of unpremeditated frankness.

“That is not for me to judge,” she answered after a moment. “But if you decide to go away for a time — surely it ought to be in such a way that your going does not seem to cast any reflection on Bessy, or subject her to any unkind criticism.”

Amherst, reddening slightly, glanced at her in surprise. “I don’t think you need fear that — I shall be the only one criticized,” he said drily.

“Are you sure — if you take such a position as you spoke of? So few people understand the love of hard work for its own sake. They will say that your quarrel with your wife has driven you to support yourself — and that will be cruel to Bessy.”

Amherst shrugged his shoulders. “They’ll be more likely to say I tried to play the gentleman and failed, and wasn’t happy till I got back to my own place in life — which is true enough,” he added with a touch of irony.

“They may say that too; but they will make Bessy suffer first — and it will be your fault if she is humiliated in that way. If you decide to take up your factory work for a time, can’t you do so without — without accepting a salary? Oh, you see I stick at nothing,” she broke in upon herself with a laugh, “and Bessy has said things which make me see that she would suffer horribly if — if you put such a slight on her.” He remained silent, and she went on urgently: “From Bessy’s standpoint it would mean a decisive break — the repudiating of your whole past. And it is a question on which you can afford to be generous, because I know . . . I think . . . it’s less important in your eyes than hers. . . . ”

Amherst glanced at her quickly. “That particular form of indebtedness, you mean?”

She smiled. “The easiest to cancel, and therefore the least galling; isn’t that the way you regard it?”

“I used to — yes; but — ” He was about to add: “No one at Lynbrook does,” but the flash of intelligence in her eyes restrained him, while at the same time it seemed to answer: “There’s my point! To see their limitation is to allow for it, since every enlightenment brings a corresponding obligation.”

She made no attempt to put into words the argument her look conveyed, but rose from her seat with a rapid glance at her watch.

“And now I must go, or I shall miss my train.” She held out her hand, and as Amherst’s met it, he said in a low tone, as if in reply to her unspoken appeal: “I shall remember all you have said.”

It was a new experience for Amherst to be acting under the pressure of another will; but during his return journey to Lynbrook that afternoon it was pure relief to surrender himself to this pressure, and the surrender brought not a sense of weakness but of recovered energy. It was not in his nature to analyze his motives, or spend his strength in weighing closely balanced alternatives of conduct; and though, during the last purposeless months, he had grown to brood over every spring of action in himself and others, this tendency disappeared at once in contact with the deed to be done. It was as though a tributary stream, gathering its crystal speed among the hills, had been suddenly poured into the stagnant waters of his will; and he saw now how thick and turbid those waters had become — how full of the slime-bred life that chokes the springs of courage.

His whole desire now was to be generous to his wife: to bear the full brunt of whatever pain their parting brought. Justine had said that Bessy seemed nervous and unhappy: it was clear, therefore, that she also had suffered from the wounds they had dealt each other, though she kept her unmoved front to the last. Poor child! Perhaps that insensible exterior was the only way she knew of expressing courage! It seemed to Amherst that all means of manifesting the finer impulses must slowly wither in the Lynbrook air. As he approached his destination, his thoughts of her were all pitiful: nothing remained of the personal resentment which had debased their parting. He had telephoned from town to announce the hour of his return, and when he emerged from the station he half-expected to find her seated in the brougham whose lamps signalled him through the early dusk. It would be like her to undergo such a reaction of feeling, and to express it, not in words, but by taking up their relation as if there had been no break in it. He had once condemned this facility of renewal as a sign of lightness, a result of that continual evasion of serious issues which made the life of Bessy’s world a thin crust of custom above a void of thought. But he now saw that, if she was the product of her environment, that constituted but another claim on his charity, and made the more precious any impulses of natural feeling that had survived the unifying pressure of her life. As he approached the brougham, he murmured mentally: “What if I were to try once more?”

Bessy had not come to meet him; but he said to himself that he should find her alone at the house, and that he would make his confession at once. As the carriage passed between the lights on the tall stone gate-posts, and rolled through the bare shrubberies of the avenue, he felt a momentary tightening of the heart — a sense of stepping back into the trap from which he had just wrenched himself free — a premonition of the way in which the smooth systematized routine of his wife’s existence might draw him back into its revolutions as he had once seen a careless factory hand seized and dragged into a flying belt. . . .

But it was only for a moment; then his thoughts reverted to Bessy. It was she who was to be considered — this time he must be strong enough for both.

The butler met him on the threshold, flanked by the usual array of footmen; and as he saw his portmanteau ceremoniously passed from hand to hand, Amherst once more felt the steel of the springe on his neck.

“Is Mrs. Amherst in the drawing-room, Knowles?” he asked.

“No, sir,” said Knowles, who had too high a sense of fitness to volunteer any information beyond the immediate fact required of him.

“She has gone up to her sitting-room, then?” Amherst continued, turning toward the broad sweep of the stairway.

“No, sir,” said the butler slowly; “Mrs. Amherst has gone away.”

“Gone away?” Amherst stopped short, staring blankly at the man’s smooth official mask.

“This afternoon, sir; to Mapleside.”

“To Mapleside?”

“Yes, sir, by motor — to stay with Mrs. Carbury.”

There was a moment’s silence. It had all happened so quickly that Amherst, with the dual vision which comes at such moments, noticed that the third footman — or was it the fourth? — was just passing his portmanteau on to a shirt-sleeved arm behind the door which led to the servant’s wing. . . .

He roused himself to look at the tall clock. It was just six. He had telephoned from town at two.

“At what time did Mrs. Amherst leave?”

The butler meditated. “Sharp at four, sir. The maid took the three-forty with the luggage.”

With the luggage! So it was not a mere one-night visit. The blood rose slowly to Amherst’s face. The footmen had disappeared, but presently the door at the back of the hall reopened, and one of them came out, carrying an elaborately-appointed tea-tray toward the smoking-room. The routine of the house was going on as if nothing had happened. . . . The butler looked at Amherst with respectful — too respectful — interrogation, and he was suddenly conscious that he was standing motionless in the middle of the hall, with one last intolerable question on his lips.

Well — it had to be spoken! “Did Mrs. Amherst receive my telephone message?”

“Yes, sir. I gave it to her myself.”

It occurred confusedly to Amherst that a well-bred man — as Lynbrook understood the phrase — would, at this point, have made some tardy feint of being in his wife’s confidence, of having, on second thoughts, no reason to be surprised at her departure. It was humiliating, he supposed, to be thus laying bare his discomfiture to his dependents — he could see that even Knowles was affected by the manifest impropriety of the situation — but no pretext presented itself to his mind, and after another interval of silence he turned slowly toward the door of the smoking-room.

“My letters are here, I suppose?” he paused on the threshold to enquire; and on the butler’s answering in the affirmative, he said to himself, with a last effort to suspend his judgment: “She has left a line — there will be some explanation —— ”

But there was nothing — neither word nor message; nothing but the reverberating retort of her departure in the face of his return — her flight to Blanche Carbury as the final answer to his final appeal.

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