Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXIV

JUSTINE was pacing the long library at Lynbrook, between the caged sets of standard authors.

She felt as much caged as they: as much a part of a conventional stage-setting totally unrelated to the action going on before it. Two weeks had passed since her return from Philadelphia; and during that time she had learned that her usefulness at Lynbrook was over. Though not unwelcome, she might almost call herself unwanted; life swept by, leaving her tethered to the stake of inaction; a bitter lot for one who chose to measure existence by deeds instead of days. She had found Bessy ostensibly busy with a succession of guests; no one in the house needed her but Cicely, and even Cicely, at times, was caught up into the whirl of her mother’s life, swept off on sleighing parties and motor-trips, or carried to town for a dancing-class or an opera matinée.

Mrs. Fenton Carbury was not among the visitors who left Lynbrook on the Monday after Justine’s return.

Mr. Carbury, with the other bread-winners of the party, had hastened back to his treadmill in Wall Street after a Sunday spent in silently studying the files of the Financial Record; but his wife stayed on, somewhat aggressively in possession, criticizing and rearranging the furniture, ringing for the servants, making sudden demands on the stable, telegraphing, telephoning, ordering fires lighted or windows opened, and leaving everywhere in her wake a trail of cigarette ashes and cocktail glasses.

Ned Bowfort had not been included in the house-party; but on the day of its dispersal he rode over unannounced for luncheon, put up his horse in the stable, threaded his way familiarly among the dozing dogs in the hall, greeted Mrs. Ansell and Justine with just the right shade of quiet deference, produced from his pocket a new puzzle-game for Cicely, and sat down beside her mother with the quiet urbanity of the family friend who knows his privileges but is too discreet to abuse them.

After that he came every day, sometimes riding home late to the Hunt Club, sometimes accompanying Bessy and Mrs. Carbury to town for dinner and the theatre; but always with his deprecating air of having dropped in by accident, and modestly hoping that his intrusion was not unwelcome.

The following Sunday brought another influx of visitors, and Bessy seemed to fling herself with renewed enthusiasm into the cares of hospitality. She had avoided Justine since their midnight talk, contriving to see her in Cicely’s presence, or pleading haste when they found themselves alone. The winter was unusually open, and she spent long hours in the saddle when her time was not taken up with her visitors. For a while she took Cicely on her daily rides; but she soon wearied of adapting her hunter’s stride to the pace of the little girl’s pony, and Cicely was once more given over to the coachman’s care.

Then came snow and a long frost, and Bessy grew restless at her imprisonment, and grumbled that there was no way of keeping well in a winter climate which made regular exercise impossible.

“Why not build a squash-court?” Blanche Carbury proposed; and the two fell instantly to making plans under the guidance of Ned Bowfort and Westy Gaines. As the scheme developed, various advisers suggested that it was a pity not to add a bowling-alley, a swimming-tank and a gymnasium; a fashionable architect was summoned from town, measurements were taken, sites discussed, sketches compared, and engineers consulted as to the cost of artesian wells and the best system for heating the tank.

Bessy seemed filled with a feverish desire to carry out the plan as quickly as possible, and on as large a scale as even the architect’s invention soared to; but it was finally decided that, before signing the contracts, she should run over to New Jersey to see a building of the same kind on which a sporting friend of Mrs. Carbury’s had recently lavished a fortune.

It was on this errand that the two ladies, in company with Westy Gaines and Bowfort, had departed on the day which found Justine restlessly measuring the length of the library. She and Mrs. Ansell had the house to themselves; and it was hardly a surprise to her when, in the course of the afternoon, Mrs. Ansell, after a discreet pause on the threshold, advanced toward her down the long room.

Since the night of her return Justine had felt sure that Mrs. Ansell would speak; but the elder lady was given to hawk-like circlings about her subject, to hanging over it and contemplating it before her wings dropped for the descent.

Now, however, it was plain that she had resolved to strike; and Justine had a sense of relief at the thought. She had been too long isolated in her anxiety, her powerlessness to help; and she had a vague hope that Mrs. Ansell’s worldly wisdom might accomplish what her inexperience had failed to achieve.

“Shall we sit by the fire? I am glad to find you alone,” Mrs. Ansell began, with the pleasant abruptness that was one of the subtlest instruments of her indirection; and as Justine acquiesced, she added, yielding her slight lines to the luxurious depths of an arm-chair: “I have been rather suddenly asked by an invalid cousin to go to Europe with her next week, and I can’t go contentedly without being at peace about our friends.”

She paused, but Justine made no answer. In spite of her growing sympathy for Mrs. Ansell she could not overcome an inherent distrust, not of her methods, but of her ultimate object. What, for instance, was her conception of being at peace about the Amhersts? Justine’s own conviction was that, as far as their final welfare was concerned, any terms were better between them than the external harmony which had prevailed during Amherst’s stay at Lynbrook.

The subtle emanation of her distrust may have been felt by Mrs. Ansell; for the latter presently continued, with a certain nobleness: “I am the more concerned because I believe I must hold myself, in a small degree, responsible for Bessy’s marriage — ” and, as Justine looked at her in surprise, she added: “I thought she could never be happy unless her affections were satisfied — and even now I believe so.”

“I believe so too,” Justine said, surprised into assent by the simplicity of Mrs. Ansell’s declaration.

“Well, then — since we are agreed in our diagnosis,” the older woman went on, smiling, “what remedy do you suggest? Or rather, how can we administer it?”

“What remedy?” Justine hesitated.

“Oh, I believe we are agreed on that too. Mr. Amherst must be brought back — but how to bring him?” She paused, and then added, with a singular effect of appealing frankness: “I ask you, because I believe you to be the only one of Bessy’s friends who is in the least in her husband’s confidence.”

Justine’s embarrassment increased. Would it not be disloyal both to Bessy and Amherst to acknowledge to a third person a fact of which Bessy herself was unaware? Yet to betray embarrassment under Mrs. Ansell’s eyes was to risk giving it a dangerous significance.

“Bessy has spoken to me once or twice — but I know very little of Mr. Amherst’s point of view; except,” Justine added, after another moment’s weighing of alternatives, “that I believe he suffers most from being cut off from his work at Westmore.”

“Yes — so I think; but that is a difficulty that time and expediency must adjust. All we can do — their friends, I mean — is to get them together again before the breach is too wide.”

Justine pondered. She was perhaps more ignorant of the situation than Mrs. Ansell imagined, for since her talk with Bessy the latter had not again alluded to Amherst’s absence, and Justine could merely conjecture that he had carried out his plan of taking the management of the mill he had spoken of. What she most wished to know was whether he had listened to her entreaty, and taken the position temporarily, without binding himself by the acceptance of a salary; or whether, wounded by the outrage of Bessy’s flight, he had freed himself from financial dependence by engaging himself definitely as manager.

“I really know very little of the present situation,” Justine said, looking at Mrs. Ansell. “Bessy merely told me that Mr. Amherst had taken up his old work in a cotton mill in the south.”

As her eyes met Mrs. Ansell’s it flashed across her that the latter did not believe what she said, and the perception made her instantly shrink back into herself. But there was nothing in Mrs. Ansell’s tone to confirm the doubt which her look betrayed.

“Ah — I hoped you knew more,” she said simply; “for, like you, I have only heard from Bessy that her husband went away suddenly to help a friend who is reorganizing some mills in Georgia. Of course, under the circumstances, such a temporary break is natural enough — perhaps inevitable — only he must not stay away too long.”

Justine was silent. Mrs. Ansell’s momentary self-betrayal had checked all farther possibility of frank communion, and the discerning lady had seen her error too late to remedy it.

But her hearer’s heart gave a leap of joy. It was clear from what Mrs. Ansell said that Amherst had not bound himself definitely, since he would not have done so without informing his wife. And with a secret thrill of happiness Justine recalled his last word to her: “I will remember all you have said.”

He had kept that word and acted on it; in spite of Bessy’s last assault on his pride he had borne with her, and deferred the day of final rupture; and the sense that she had had a part in his decision filled Justine with a glow of hope. The consciousness of Mrs. Ansell’s suspicions faded to insignificance — Mrs. Ansell and her kind might think what they chose, since all that mattered now was that she herself should act bravely and circumspectly in her last attempt to save her friends.

“I am not sure,” Mrs. Ansell continued, gently scrutinizing her companion, “that I think it unwise of him to have gone; but if he stays too long Bessy may listen to bad advice — advice disastrous to her happiness.” She paused, and turned her eyes meditatively toward the fire. “As far as I know,” she said, with the same air of serious candour, “you are the only person who can tell him this.”

“I?” exclaimed Justine, with a leap of colour to her pale cheeks.

Mrs. Ansell’s eyes continued to avoid her. “My dear Miss Brent, Bessy has told me something of the wise counsels you have given her. Mr. Amherst is also your friend. As I said just now, you are the only person who might act as a link between them — surely you will not renounce the rôle.”

Justine controlled herself. “My only rôle, as you call it, has been to urge Bessy to — to try to allow for her husband’s views —— ”

“And have you not given the same advice to Mr. Amherst?”

The eyes of the two women met. “Yes,” said Justine, after a moment.

“Then why refuse your help now? The moment is crucial.”

Justine’s thoughts had flown beyond the stage of resenting Mrs. Ansell’s gentle pertinacity. All her faculties were absorbed in the question as to how she could most effectually use whatever influence she possessed.

“I put it to you as one old friend to another — will you write to Mr. Amherst to come back?” Mrs. Ansell urged her.

Justine was past considering even the strangeness of this request, and its oblique reflection on the kind of power ascribed to her. Through the confused beatings of her heart she merely struggled for a clearer sense of guidance.

“No,” she said slowly. “I cannot.”

“You cannot? With a friend’s happiness in extremity?” Mrs. Ansell paused a moment before she added. “Unless you believe that Bessy would be happier divorced?”

“Divorced —? Oh, no,” Justine shuddered.

“That is what it will come to.”

“No, no! In time —— ”

“Time is what I am most afraid of, when Blanche Carbury disposes of it.”

Justine breathed a deep sigh.

“You’ll write?” Mrs. Ansell murmured, laying a soft touch on her hand.

“I have not the influence you think —— ”

“Can you do any harm by trying?”

“I might — ” Justine faltered, losing her exact sense of the words she used.

“Ah,” the other flashed back, “then you have influence! Why will you not use it?”

Justine waited a moment; then her resolve gathered itself into words. “If I have any influence, I am not sure it would be well to use it as you suggest.”

“Not to urge Mr. Amherst’s return?”

“No — not now.”

She caught the same veiled gleam of incredulity under Mrs. Ansell’s lids — caught and disregarded it.

“It must be now or never,” Mrs. Ansell insisted.

“I can’t think so,” Justine held out.

“Nevertheless — will you try?”

“No — no! It might be fatal.”

“To whom?”

“To both.” She considered. “If he came back now I know he would not stay.”

Mrs. Ansell was upon her abruptly. “You know? Then you speak with authority?”

“No — what authority? I speak as I feel,” Justine faltered.

The older woman drew herself to her feet. “Ah — then you shoulder a great responsibility!” She moved nearer to Justine, and once more laid a fugitive touch upon her. “You won’t write to him?”

“No — no,” the girl flung back; and the voices of the returning party in the hall made Mrs. Ansell, with an almost imperceptible gesture of warning, turn musingly away toward the fire.

Bessy came back brimming with the wonders she had seen. A glazed “sun-room,” mosaic pavements, a marble fountain to feed the marble tank — and outside a water-garden, descending in successive terraces, to take up and utilize — one could see how practically! — the overflow from the tank. If one did the thing at all, why not do it decently? She had given up her new motor, had let her town house, had pinched and stinted herself in a hundred ways — if ever woman was entitled to a little compensating pleasure, surely she was that woman!

The days were crowded with consultations. Architect, contractors, engineers, a landscape gardener, and a dozen minor craftsmen, came and went, unrolled plans, moistened pencils, sketched, figured, argued, persuaded, and filled Bessy with the dread of appearing, under Blanche Carbury’s eyes, subject to any restraining influences of economy. What! She was a young woman, with an independent fortune, and she was always wavering, considering, secretly referring back to the mute criticism of an invisible judge — of the husband who had been first to shake himself free of any mutual subjection? The accomplished Blanche did not have to say this — she conveyed it by the raising of painted brows, by a smile of mocking interrogation, a judiciously placed silence or a resigned glance at the architect. So the estimates poured in, were studied, resisted — then yielded to and signed; then the hour of advance payments struck, and an imperious appeal was despatched to Mr. Tredegar, to whom the management of Bessy’s affairs had been transferred.

Mr. Tredegar, to his client’s surprise, answered the appeal in person. He had not been lately to Lynbrook, dreading the cold and damp of the country in winter; and his sudden arrival had therefore an ominous significance.

He came for an evening in mid-week, when even Blanche Carbury was absent, and Bessy and Justine had the house to themselves. Mrs. Ansell had sailed the week before with her invalid cousin. No farther words had passed between herself and Justine — but the latter was conscious that their talk had increased instead of lessened the distance between them. Justine herself meant to leave soon. Her hope of regaining Bessy’s confidence had been deceived, and seeing herself definitely superseded, she chafed anew at her purposeless inactivity. She had already written to one or two doctors in New York, and to the matron of Saint Elizabeth’s. She had made herself a name in surgical cases, and it could not be long before a summons came. . . .

Meanwhile Mr. Tredegar arrived, and the three dined together, the two women bending meekly to his discourse, which was never more oracular and authoritative than when delivered to the gentler sex alone. Amherst’s absence, in particular, seemed to loose the thin current of Mr. Tredegar’s eloquence. He was never quite at ease in the presence of an independent mind, and Justine often reflected that, even had the two men known nothing of each other’s views, there would have been between them an instinctive and irreducible hostility — they would have disliked each other if they had merely jostled elbows in the street.

Yet even freed from Amherst’s presence Mr. Tredegar showed a darkling brow, and as Justine slipped away after dinner she felt that she left Bessy to something more serious than the usual business conference.

How serious, she was to learn that very night, when, in the small hours, her friend burst in on her tearfully. Bessy was ruined — ruined — that was what Mr. Tredegar had come to tell her! She might have known he would not have travelled to Lynbrook for a trifle. . . . She had expected to find herself cramped, restricted — to be warned that she must “manage,” hateful word! . . . But this! This was incredible! Unendurable! There was no money to build the gymnasium — none at all! And all because it had been swallowed up at Westmore — because the ridiculous changes there, the changes that nobody wanted, nobody approved of — that Truscomb and all the other experts had opposed and derided from the first — these changes, even modified and arrested, had already involved so much of her income, that it might be years — yes, he said years! — before she would feel herself free again — free of her own fortune, of Cicely’s fortune . . . of the money poor Dick Westmore had meant his wife and child to enjoy!

Justine listened anxiously to this confused outpouring of resentments. Bessy’s born incapacity for figures made it indeed possible that the facts came on her as a surprise — that she had quite forgotten the temporary reduction of her income, and had begun to imagine that what she had saved in one direction was hers to spend in another. All this was conceivable. But why had Mr. Tredegar drawn so dark a picture of the future? Or was it only that, thwarted of her immediate desire, Bessy’s disappointment blackened the farthest verge of her horizon? Justine, though aware of her friend’s lack of perspective, suspected that a conniving hand had helped to throw the prospect out of drawing. . . .

Could it be possible, then, that Mr. Tredegar was among those who desired a divorce? That the influences at which Mrs. Ansell had hinted proceeded not only from Blanche Carbury and her group? Helpless amid this rush of forebodings, Justine could do no more than soothe and restrain — to reason would have been idle. She had never till now realized how completely she had lost ground with Bessy.

“The humiliation — before my friends! Oh, I was warned . . . my father, every one . . . for Cicely’s sake I was warned . . . but I wouldn’t listen — and now! From the first it was all he cared for — in Europe, even, he was always dragging me to factories. Me? — I was only the owner of Westmore! He wanted power — power, that’s all — when he lost it he left me . . . oh, I’m glad now my baby is dead! Glad there’s nothing between us — nothing, nothing in the world to tie us together any longer!”

The disproportion between this violent grief and its trivial cause would have struck Justine as simply grotesque, had she not understood that the incident of the gymnasium, which followed with cumulative pressure on a series of similar episodes, seemed to Bessy like the reaching out of a retaliatory hand — a mocking reminder that she was still imprisoned in the consequences of her unhappy marriage.

Such folly seemed past weeping for — it froze Justine’s compassion into disdain, till she remembered that the sources of our sorrow are sometimes nobler than their means of expression, and that a baffled unappeased love was perhaps the real cause of Bessy’s anger against her husband.

At any rate, the moment was a critical one, and Justine remembered with a pang that Mrs. Ansell had foreseen such a contingency, and implored her to take measures against it. She had refused, from a sincere dread of precipitating a definite estrangement — but had she been right in judging the situation so logically? With a creature of Bessy’s emotional uncertainties the result of contending influences was really incalculable — it might still be that, at this juncture, Amherst’s return would bring about a reaction of better feelings. . . .

Justine sat and mused on these things after leaving her friend exhausted upon a tearful pillow. She felt that she had perhaps taken too large a survey of the situation — that the question whether there could ever be happiness between this tormented pair was not one to concern those who struggled for their welfare. Most marriages are a patch-work of jarring tastes and ill-assorted ambitions — if here and there, for a moment, two colours blend, two textures are the same, so much the better for the pattern! Justine, certainly, could foresee in reunion no positive happiness for either of her friends; but she saw positive disaster for Bessy in separation from her husband. . . .

Suddenly she rose from her chair by the falling fire, and crossed over to the writing-table. She would write to Amherst herself — she would tell him to come. The decision once reached, hope flowed back to her heart — the joy of action so often deceived her into immediate faith in its results!

“Dear Mr. Amherst,” she wrote, “the last time I saw you, you told me you would remember what I said. I ask you to do so now — to remember that I urged you not to be away too long. I believe you ought to come back now, though I know Bessy will not ask you to. I am writing without her knowledge, but with the conviction that she needs you, though perhaps without knowing it herself. . . . ”

She paused, and laid down her pen. Why did it make her so happy to write to him? Was it merely the sense of recovered helpfulness, or something warmer, more personal, that made it a joy to trace his name, and to remind him of their last intimate exchange of words? Well — perhaps it was that too. There were moments when she was so mortally lonely that any sympathetic contact with another life sent a glow into her veins — that she was thankful to warm herself at any fire.

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