Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXIII

JUSTINE was coming back to Lynbrook. She had been, after all, unable to stay out the ten days of her visit: the undefinable sense of being needed, so often the determining motive of her actions, drew her back to Long Island at the end of the week. She had received no word from Amherst or Bessy; only Cicely had told her, in a big round hand, that mother had been away three days, and that it had been very lonely, and that the housekeeper’s cat had kittens, and she was to have one; and were kittens christened, or how did they get their names? — because she wanted to call hers Justine; and she had found in her book a bird like the one father had shown them in the swamp; and they were not alone now, because the Telfers were there, and they had all been out sleighing; but it would be much nicer when Justine came back. . . .

It was as difficult to extract any sequence of facts from Cicely’s letter as from an early chronicle. She made no reference to Amherst’s return, which was odd, since she was fond of her step-father, yet not significant, since the fact of his arrival might have been crowded out by the birth of the kittens, or some incident equally prominent in her perspectiveless grouping of events; nor did she name the date of her mother’s departure, so that Justine could not guess whether it had been contingent on Amherst’s return, or wholly unconnected with it. What puzzled her most was Bessy’s own silence — yet that too, in a sense, was reassuring, for Bessy thought of others chiefly when it was painful to think of herself, and her not writing implied that she had felt no present need of her friend’s sympathy.

Justine did not expect to find Amherst at Lynbrook. She had felt convinced, when they parted, that he would persist in his plan of going south; and the fact that the Telfer girls were again in possession made it seem probable that he had already left. Under the circumstances, Justine thought the separation advisable; but she was eager to be assured that it had been effected amicably, and without open affront to Bessy’s pride.

She arrived on a Saturday afternoon, and when she entered the house the sound of voices from the drawing-room, and the prevailing sense of bustle and movement amid which her own coming was evidently an unconsidered detail, showed that the normal life of Lynbrook had resumed its course. The Telfers, as usual, had brought a lively throng in their train; and amid the bursts of merriment about the drawing-room tea-table she caught Westy Gaines’s impressive accents, and the screaming laughter of Blanche Carbury. . . .

So Blanche Carbury was back at Lynbrook! The discovery gave Justine fresh cause for conjecture. Whatever reciprocal concessions might have resulted from Amherst’s return to his wife, it seemed hardly probable that they included a renewal of relations with Mrs. Carbury. Had his mission failed then — had he and Bessy parted in anger, and was Mrs. Carbury’s presence at Lynbrook Bessy’s retort to his assertion of independence?

In the school-room, where Justine was received with the eager outpouring of Cicely’s minutest experiences, she dared not put the question that would have solved these doubts; and she left to dress for dinner without knowing whether Amherst had returned to Lynbrook. Yet in her heart she never questioned that he had done so; all her fears revolved about what had since taken place.

She saw Bessy first in the drawing-room, surrounded by her guests; and their brief embrace told her nothing, except that she had never beheld her friend more brilliant, more triumphantly in possession of recovered spirits and health.

That Amherst was absent was now made evident by Bessy’s requesting Westy Gaines to lead the way to the dining-room with Mrs. Ansell, who was one of the reassembled visitors; and the only one, as Justine presently observed, not in key with the prevailing gaiety. Mrs. Ansell, usually so tinged with the colours of her environment, preserved on this occasion a grey neutrality of tone which was the only break in the general brightness. It was not in her graceful person to express anything as gross as disapproval, yet that sentiment was manifest, to the nice observer, in a delicate aloofness which made the waves of laughter fall back from her, and spread a circle of cloudy calm about her end of the table. Justine had never been greatly drawn to Mrs. Ansell. Her own adaptability was not in the least akin to the older woman’s studied self-effacement; and the independence of judgment which Justine preserved in spite of her perception of divergent standpoints made her a little contemptuous of an excess of charity that seemed to have been acquired at the cost of all individual convictions. To-night for the first time she felt in Mrs. Ansell a secret sympathy with her own fears; and a sense of this tacit understanding made her examine with sudden interest the face of her unexpected ally. . . . After all, what did she know of Mrs. Ansell’s history — of the hidden processes which had gradually subdued her own passions and desires, making of her, as it were, a mere decorative background, a connecting link between other personalities? Perhaps, for a woman alone in the world, without the power and opportunity that money gives, there was no alternative between letting one’s individuality harden into a small dry nucleus of egoism, or diffuse itself thus in the interstices of other lives — and there fell upon Justine the chill thought that just such a future might await her if she missed the liberating gift of personal happiness. . . .

Neither that night nor the next day had she a private word with Bessy — and it became evident, as the hours passed, that Mrs. Amherst was deliberately postponing the moment when they should find themselves alone. But the Lynbrook party was to disperse on the Monday; and Bessy, who hated early rising, and all the details of housekeeping, tapped at Justine’s door late on Sunday night to ask her to speed the departing visitors.

She pleaded this necessity as an excuse for her intrusion, and the playful haste of her manner showed a nervous shrinking from any renewal of confidence; but as she leaned in the doorway, fingering the diamond chain about her neck, while one satin-tipped foot emerged restlessly from the edge of her lace gown, her face lost the bloom of animation which talk and laughter always produced in it, and she looked so pale and weary that Justine needed no better pretext for drawing her into the room.

It was not in Bessy to resist a soothing touch in her moments of nervous reaction. She sank into the chair by the fire and let her head rest wearily against the cushion which Justine slipped behind it.

Justine dropped into the low seat beside her, and laid a hand on hers. “You don’t look as well as when I went away, Bessy. Are you sure you’ve done wisely in beginning your house-parties so soon?”

It always alarmed Bessy to be told that she was not looking her best, and she sat upright, a wave of pink rising under her sensitive skin.

“I am quite well, on the contrary; but I was dying of inanition in this big empty house, and I suppose I haven’t got the boredom out of my system yet!”

Justine recognized the echo of Mrs. Carbury’s manner.

“Even if you were bored,” she rejoined, “the inanition was probably good for you. What does Dr. Wyant say to your breaking away from his régime?” She named Wyant purposely, knowing that Bessy had that respect for the medical verdict which is the last trace of reverence for authority in the mind of the modern woman. But Mrs. Amherst laughed with gentle malice.

“Oh, I haven’t seen Dr. Wyant lately. His interest in me died out the day you left.”

Justine forced a laugh to hide her annoyance. She had not yet recovered from the shrinking disgust of her last scene with Wyant.

“Don’t be a goose, Bessy. If he hasn’t come, it must be because you’ve told him not to — because you’re afraid of letting him see that you’re disobeying him.”

Bessy laughed again. “My dear, I’m afraid of nothing — nothing! Not even of your big eyes when they glare at me like coals. I suppose you must have looked at poor Wyant like that to frighten him away! And yet the last time we talked of him you seemed to like him — you even hinted that it was because of him that Westy had no chance.”

Justine uttered an impatient exclamation. “If neither of them existed it wouldn’t affect the other’s chances in the least. Their only merit is that they both enhance the charms of celibacy!”

Bessy’s smile dropped, and she turned a grave glance on her friend. “Ah, most men do that — you’re so clever to have found it out!”

It was Justine’s turn to smile. “Oh, but I haven’t — as a generalization. I mean to marry as soon as I get the chance!”

“The chance ——?”

“To meet the right man. I’m gambler enough to believe in my luck yet!”

Mrs. Amherst sighed compassionately. “There is no right man! As Blanche says, matrimony’s as uncomfortable as a ready-made shoe. How can one and the same institution fit every individual case? And why should we all have to go lame because marriage was once invented to suit an imaginary case?”

Justine gave a slight shrug. “You talk of walking lame — how else do we all walk? It seems to me that life’s the tight boot, and marriage the crutch that may help one to hobble along!” She drew Bessy’s hand into hers with a caressing pressure. “When you philosophize I always know you’re tired. No one who feels well stops to generalize about symptoms. If you won’t let your doctor prescribe for you, your nurse is going to carry out his orders. What you want is quiet. Be reasonable and send away everybody before Mr. Amherst comes back!”

She dropped the last phrase carelessly, glancing away as she spoke; but the stiffening of the fingers in her clasp sent a little tremor through her hand.

“Thanks for your advice. It would be excellent but for one thing — my husband is not coming back!”

The mockery in Bessy’s voice seemed to pass into her features, hardening and contracting them as frost shrivels a flower. Justine’s face, on the contrary, was suddenly illuminated by compassion, as though a light had struck up into it from the cold glitter of her friend’s unhappiness.

“Bessy! What do you mean by not coming back?”

“I mean he’s had the tact to see that we shall be more comfortable apart — without putting me to the unpleasant necessity of telling him so.”

Again the piteous echo of Blanche Carbury’s phrases! The laboured mimicry of her ideas!

Justine looked anxiously at her friend. It seemed horribly false not to mention her own talk with Amherst, yet she felt it wiser to feign ignorance, since Bessy could never be trusted to interpret rightly any departure from the conventional.

“Please tell me what has happened,” she said at length.

Bessy, with a smile, released her hand. “John has gone back to the life he prefers — which I take to be a hint to me to do the same.”

Justine hesitated again; then the pressure of truth overcame every barrier of expediency. “Bessy — I ought to tell you that I saw Mr. Amherst in town the day I went to Philadelphia. He spoke of going away for a time . . . he seemed unhappy . . . but he told me he was coming back to see you first — ” She broke off, her clear eyes on her friend’s; and she saw at once that Bessy was too self-engrossed to feel any surprise at her avowal. “Surely he came back?” she went on.

“Oh, yes — he came back!” Bessy sank into the cushions, watching the firelight play on her diamond chain as she repeated the restless gesture of lifting it up and letting it slip through her fingers.

“Well — and then?”

“Then — nothing! I was not here when he came.”

“You were not here? What had happened?”

“I had gone over to Blanche Carbury’s for a day or two. I was just leaving when I heard he was coming back, and I couldn’t throw her over at the last moment.”

Justine tried to catch the glance that fluttered evasively under Bessy’s lashes. “You knew he was coming — and you chose that time to go to Mrs. Carbury’s?”

“I didn’t choose, my dear — it just happened! And it really happened for the best. I suppose he was annoyed at my going — you know he has a ridiculous prejudice against Blanche — and so the next morning he rushed off to his cotton mill.”

There was a pause, while the diamonds continued to flow in threads of fire through Mrs. Amherst’s fingers.

At length Justine said: “Did Mr. Amherst know that you knew he was coming back before you left for Mrs. Carbury’s?”

Bessy feigned to meditate the question. “Did he know that I knew that he knew?” she mocked. “Yes — I suppose so — he must have known.” She stifled a slight yawn as she drew herself languidly to her feet.

“Then he took that as your answer?”

“My answer ——?”

“To his coming back —— ”

“So it appears. I told you he had shown unusual tact.” Bessy stretched her softly tapering arms above her head and then dropped them along her sides with another yawn. “But it’s almost morning — it’s wicked of me to have kept you so late, when you must be up to look after all those people!”

She flung her arms with a light gesture about Justine’s shoulders, and laid a dry kiss on her cheek.

“Don’t look at me with those big eyes — they’ve eaten up the whole of your face! And you needn’t think I’m sorry for what I’ve done,” she declared. “I’m not — the — least — little — atom — of a bit!”

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