Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

III

AT the manager’s door Amherst was met by Mrs. Truscomb, a large flushed woman in a soiled wrapper and diamond earrings.

“Mr. Truscomb’s very sick. He ought not to see you. The doctor thinks — ” she began.

Dr. Disbrow, at this point, emerged from the sitting-room. He was a pale man, with a beard of mixed grey-and-drab, and a voice of the same indeterminate quality.

“Good evening, Mr. Amherst. Truscomb is pretty poorly — on the edge of pneumonia, I’m afraid. As he seems anxious to see you I think you’d better go up for two minutes — not more, please.” He paused, and went on with a smile: “You won’t excite him, of course — nothing unpleasant —— ”

“He’s worried himself sick over that wretched Dillon,” Mrs. Truscomb interposed, draping her wrapper majestically about an indignant bosom.

“That’s it — puts too much heart into his work. But we’ll have Dillon all right before long,” the physician genially declared.

Mrs. Truscomb, with a reluctant gesture, led Amherst up the handsomely carpeted stairs to the room where her husband lay, a prey to the cares of office. She ushered the young man in, and withdrew to the next room, where he heard her coughing at intervals, as if to remind him that he was under observation.

The manager of the Westmore mills was not the type of man that Amherst’s comments on his superior suggested. As he sat propped against the pillows, with a brick-red flush on his cheek-bones, he seemed at first glance to belong to the innumerable army of American business men — the sallow, undersized, lacklustre drudges who have never lifted their heads from the ledger. Even his eye, now bright with fever, was dull and non-committal in daily life; and perhaps only the ramifications of his wrinkles could have revealed what particular ambitions had seamed his soul.

“Good evening, Amherst. I’m down with a confounded cold.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” the young man forced himself to say.

“Can’t get my breath — that’s the trouble.” Truscomb paused and gasped. “I’ve just heard that Mrs. Westmore is here — and I want you to go round — tomorrow morning — ” He had to break off once more.

“Yes, sir,” said Amherst, his heart leaping.

“Needn’t see her — ask for her father, Mr. Langhope. Tell him what the doctor says — I’ll be on my legs in a day or two — ask ’em to wait till I can take ’em over the mills.”

He shot one of his fugitive glances at his assistant, and held up a bony hand. “Wait a minute. On your way there, stop and notify Mr. Gaines. He was to meet them here. You understand?”

“Yes, sir,” said Amherst; and at that moment Mrs. Truscomb appeared on the threshold.

“I must ask you to come now, Mr. Amherst,” she began haughtily; but a glance from her husband reduced her to a heaving pink nonentity.

“Hold on, Amherst. I hear you’ve been in to Hanaford. Did you go to the hospital?”

“Ezra — ” his wife murmured: he looked through her.

“Yes,” said Amherst.

Truscomb’s face seemed to grow smaller and dryer. He transferred his look from his wife to his assistant.

“All right. You’ll just bear in mind that it’s Disbrow’s business to report Dillon’s case to Mrs. Westmore? You’re to confine yourself to my message. Is that clear?”

“Perfectly clear. Goodnight,” Amherst answered, as he turned to follow Mrs. Truscomb.

That same evening, four persons were seated under the bronze chandelier in the red satin drawing-room of the Westmore mansion. One of the four, the young lady in widow’s weeds whose face had arrested Miss Brent’s attention that afternoon, rose from a massively upholstered sofa and drifted over to the fireplace near which her father sat.

“Didn’t I tell you it was awful, father?” she sighed, leaning despondently against the high carved mantelpiece surmounted by a bronze clock in the form of an obelisk.

Mr. Langhope, who sat smoking, with one faultlessly-clad leg crossed on the other, and his ebony stick reposing against the arm of his chair, raised his clear ironical eyes to her face.

“As an archæologist,” he said, with a comprehensive wave of his hand, “I find it positively interesting. I should really like to come here and dig.”

There were no lamps in the room, and the numerous gas-jets of the chandelier shed their lights impartially on ponderously framed canvases of the Bay of Naples and the Hudson in Autumn, on Carrara busts and bronze Indians on velvet pedestals.

“All this,” murmured Mr. Langhope, “is getting to be as rare as the giant sequoias. In another fifty years we shall have collectors fighting for that Bay of Naples.”

Bessy Westmore turned from him impatiently. When she felt deeply on any subject her father’s flippancy annoyed her.

You can see, Maria,” she said, seating herself beside the other lady of the party, “why I couldn’t possibly live here.”

Mrs. Eustace Ansell, immediately after dinner, had bent her slender back above the velvet-covered writing-table, where an inkstand of Vienna ormolu offered its empty cup to her pen. Being habitually charged with a voluminous correspondence, she had foreseen this contingency and met it by despatching her maid for her own writing-case, which was now outspread before her in all its complex neatness; but at Bessy’s appeal she wiped her pen, and turned a sympathetic gaze on her companion.

Mrs. Ansell’s face drew all its charm from its adaptability. It was a different face to each speaker: now kindling with irony, now gently maternal, now charged with abstract meditation — and few paused to reflect that, in each case, it was merely the mirror held up to some one else’s view of life.

“It needs doing over,” she admitted, following the widow’s melancholy glance about the room. “But you are a spoilt child to complain. Think of having a house of your own to come to, instead of having to put up at the Hanaford hotel!”

Mrs. Westmore’s attention was arrested by the first part of the reply.

“Doing over? Why in the world should I do it over? No one could expect me to come here now — could they, Mr. Tredegar?” she exclaimed, transferring her appeal to the fourth member of the party.

Mr. Tredegar, the family lawyer, who had deemed it his duty to accompany the widow on her visit of inspection, was strolling up and down the room with short pompous steps, a cigar between his lips, and his arms behind him. He cocked his sparrow-like head, scanned the offending apartment, and terminated his survey by resting his eyes on Mrs. Westmore’s charming petulant face.

“It all depends,” he replied axiomatically, “how large an income you require.”

Mr. Tredegar uttered this remark with the air of one who pronounces on an important point in law: his lightest observation seemed a decision handed down from the bench to which he had never ascended. He restored the cigar to his lips, and sought approval in Mrs. Ansell’s expressive eye.

“Ah, that’s it, Bessy. You’ve that to remember,” the older lady murmured, as if struck by the profundity of the remark.

Mrs. Westmore made an impatient gesture. “We’ve always had money enough — Dick was perfectly satisfied.” Her voice trembled a little on her husband’s name. “And you don’t know what the place is like by daylight — and the people who come to call!”

“Of course you needn’t see any one now, dear,” Mrs. Ansell reminded her, “except the Halford Gaineses.”

“I am sure they’re bad enough. Juliana Gaines will say: ‘My dear, is that the way widows’ veils are worn in New York this autumn?’ and Halford will insist on our going to one of those awful family dinners, all Madeira and terrapin.”

“It’s too early for terrapin,” Mrs. Ansell smiled consolingly; but Bessy had reverted to her argument. “Besides, what difference would my coming here make? I shall never understand anything about business,” she declared.

Mr. Tredegar pondered, and once more removed his cigar. “The necessity has never arisen. But now that you find yourself in almost sole control of a large property —— ”

Mr. Langhope laughed gently. “Apply yourself, Bessy. Bring your masterly intellect to bear on the industrial problem.”

Mrs. Ansell restored the innumerable implements to her writing-case, and laid her arm with a caressing gesture on Mrs. Westmore’s shoulder. “Don’t tease her. She’s tired, and she misses the baby.”

“I shall get a telegram tomorrow morning,” exclaimed the young mother, brightening.

“Of course you will. ‘Cicely has just eaten two boiled eggs and a bowl of porridge, and is bearing up wonderfully.’”

She drew Mrs. Westmore persuasively to her feet, but the widow refused to relinquish her hold on her grievance.

“You all think I’m extravagant and careless about money,” she broke out, addressing the room in general from the shelter of Mrs. Ansell’s embrace; “but I know one thing: If I had my way I should begin to economize by selling this horrible house, instead of leaving it shut up from one year’s end to another.”

Her father looked up: proposals of retrenchment always struck him as business-like when they did not affect his own expenditure. “What do you think of that, eh, Tredegar?”

The eminent lawyer drew in his thin lips. “From the point of view of policy, I think unfavourably of it,” he pronounced.

Bessy’s face clouded, and Mrs. Ansell argued gently: “Really, it’s too late to look so far into the future. Remember, my dear, that we are due at the mills tomorrow at ten.”

The reminder that she must rise early had the effect of hastening Mrs. Westmore’s withdrawal, and the two ladies, after an exchange of goodnights, left the men to their cigars.

Mr. Langhope was the first to speak.

“Bessy’s as hopelessly vague about business as I am, Tredegar. Why the deuce Westmore left her everything outright — but he was only a heedless boy himself.”

“Yes. The way he allowed things to go, it’s a wonder there was anything to leave. This Truscomb must be an able fellow.”

“Devoted to Dick’s interests, I’ve always understood.”

“He makes the mills pay well, at any rate, and that’s not so easy nowadays. But on general principles it’s as well he should see that we mean to look into everything thoroughly. Of course Halford Gaines will never be more than a good figure-head, but Truscomb must be made to understand that Mrs. Westmore intends to interest herself personally in the business.”

“Oh, by all means — of course — ” Mr. Langhope assented, his light smile stiffening into a yawn at the mere suggestion.

He rose with an effort, supporting himself on his stick. “I think I’ll turn in myself. There’s not a readable book in that God-forsaken library, and I believe Maria Ansell has gone off with my volume of Loti.”

The next morning, when Amherst presented himself at the Westmore door, he had decided to follow his chief’s instructions to the letter, and ask for Mr. Langhope only. The decision had cost him a struggle, for his heart was big with its purpose; but though he knew that he must soon place himself in open opposition to Truscomb, he recognized the prudence of deferring the declaration of war as long as possible.

On his round of the mills, that morning, he had paused in the room where Mrs. Dillon knelt beside her mop and pail, and had found her, to his surprise, comparatively reassured and cheerful. Dr. Disbrow, she told him, had been in the previous evening, and had told her to take heart about Jim, and left her enough money to get along for a week — and a wonderful new cough-mixture that he’d put up for her special. Amherst found it difficult to listen calmly, with the nurse’s words still in his ears, and the sight before him of Mrs. Dillon’s lean shoulder-blades travelling painfully up and down with the sweep of the mop.

“I don’t suppose that cost Truscomb ten dollars,” he said to himself, as the lift lowered him to the factory door; but another voice argued that he had no right to accuse Disbrow of acting as his brother-in-law’s agent, when the gift to Mrs. Dillon might have been prompted by his own kindness of heart.

“And what prompted the lie about her husband? Well, perhaps he’s an incurable optimist,” he summed up, springing into the Hanaford car.

By the time he reached Mrs. Westmore’s door his wrath had subsided, and he felt that he had himself well in hand. He had taken unusual pains with his appearance that morning — or rather his mother, learning of the errand on which Truscomb had sent him, had laid out his carefully-brushed Sunday clothes, and adjusted his tie with skilful fingers. “You’d really be handsome, Johnny, if you were only a little vainer,” she said, pushing him away to survey the result; and when he stared at her, repeating: “I never heard that vanity made a man better-looking,” she responded gaily: “Oh, up to a certain point, because it teaches him how to use what he’s got. So remember,” she charged him, as he smiled and took up his hat, “that you’re going to see a pretty young woman, and that you’re not a hundred years old yourself.”

“I’ll try to,” he answered, humouring her, “but as I’ve been forbidden to ask for her, I am afraid your efforts will be wasted.”

The servant to whom he gave his message showed him into the library, with a request that he should wait; and there, to his surprise, he found, not the white-moustached gentleman whom he had guessed the night before to be Mr. Langhope, but a young lady in deep black, who turned on him a look of not unfriendly enquiry.

It was not Bessy’s habit to anticipate the clock; but her distaste for her surroundings, and the impatience to have done with the tedious duties awaiting her, had sent her downstairs before the rest of the party. Her life had been so free from tiresome obligations that she had but a small stock of patience to meet them with; and already, after a night at Hanaford, she was pining to get back to the comforts of her own country-house, the soft rut of her daily habits, the funny chatter of her little girl, the long stride of her Irish hunter across the Hempstead plains — to everything, in short, that made it conceivably worth while to get up in the morning.

The servant who ushered in Amherst, thinking the room empty, had not mentioned his name; and for a moment he and his hostess examined each other in silence, Bessy puzzled at the unannounced appearance of a good-looking young man who might have been some one she had met and forgotten, while Amherst felt his self-possession slipping away into the depths of a pair of eyes so dark-lashed and deeply blue that his only thought was one of wonder at his previous indifference to women’s eyes.

“Mrs. Westmore?” he asked, restored to self-command by the perception that his longed-for opportunity was at hand; and Bessy, his voice confirming the inference she had drawn from his appearance, replied with a smile: “I am Mrs. Westmore. But if you have come to see me, I ought to tell you that in a moment I shall be obliged to go out to our mills. I have a business appointment with our manager, but if —— ”

She broke off, gracefully waiting for him to insert his explanation.

“I have come from the manager; I am John Amherst — your assistant manager,” he added, as the mention of his name apparently conveyed no enlightenment.

Mrs. Westmore’s face changed, and she let slip a murmur of surprise that would certainly have flattered Amherst’s mother if she could have heard it; but it had an opposite effect on the young man, who inwardly accused himself of having tried to disguise his trade by not putting on his everyday clothes.

“How stupid of me! I took you for — I had no idea; I didn’t expect Mr. Truscomb here,” his employer faltered in embarrassment; then their eyes met and both smiled.

“Mr. Truscomb sent me to tell you that he is ill, and will not be able to show you the mills today. I didn’t mean to ask for you — I was told to give the message to Mr. Langhope,” Amherst scrupulously explained, trying to repress the sudden note of joy in his voice.

He was subject to the unobservant man’s acute flashes of vision, and Mrs. Westmore’s beauty was like a blinding light abruptly turned on eyes subdued to obscurity. As he spoke, his glance passed from her face to her hair, and remained caught in its meshes. He had never seen such hair — it did not seem to grow in the usual orderly way, but bubbled up all over her head in independent clusters of brightness, breaking, about the brow, the temples, the nape, into little irrelevant waves and eddies of light, with dusky hollows of softness where the hand might plunge. It takes but the throb of a nerve to carry such a complex impression from the eye to the mind, but the object of the throb had perhaps felt the electric flash of its passage, for her colour rose while Amherst spoke.

“Ah, here is my father now,” she said with a vague accent of relief, as Mr. Langhope’s stick was heard tapping its way across the hall.

When he entered, accompanied by Mrs. Ansell, his sharp glance of surprise at her visitor told her that he was as much misled as herself, and gave her a sense of being agreeably justified in her blunder. “If father thinks you’re a gentleman —— ” her shining eyes seemed to say, as she explained: “This is Mr. Amherst, father: Mr. Truscomb has sent him.”

“Mr. Amherst?” Langhope, with extended hand, echoed affably but vaguely; and it became clear that neither Mrs. Westmore nor her father had ever before heard the name of their assistant manager.

The discovery stung Amherst to a somewhat unreasoning resentment; and while he was trying to subordinate this sentiment to the larger feelings with which he had entered the house, Mrs. Ansell, turning her eyes on him, said gently: “Your name is unusual. I had a friend named Lucy Warne who married a very clever man — a mechanical genius —— ”

Amherst’s face cleared. “My father was a genius; and my mother is Lucy Warne,” he said, won by the soft look and the persuasive voice.

“What a delightful coincidence! We were girls together at Albany. You must remember Judge Warne?” she said, turning to Mr. Langhope, who, twirling his white moustache, murmured, a shade less cordially: “Of course — of course — delightful — most interesting.”

Amherst did not notice the difference. His perceptions were already enveloped in the caress that emanated from Mrs. Ansell’s voice and smile; and he only asked himself vaguely if it were possible that this graceful woman, with her sunny autumnal air, could really be his mother’s contemporary. But the question brought an instant reaction of bitterness.

“Poverty is the only thing that makes people old nowadays,” he reflected, painfully conscious of his own share in the hardships his mother had endured; and when Mrs. Ansell went on: “I must go and see her — you must let me take her by surprise,” he said stiffly: “We live out at the mills, a long way from here.”

“Oh, we’re going there this morning,” she rejoined, unrebuffed by what she probably took for a mere social awkwardness, while Mrs. Westmore interposed: “But, Maria, Mr. Truscomb is ill, and has sent Mr. Amherst to say that we are not to come.”

“Yes: so Gaines has just telephoned. It’s most unfortunate,” Mr. Langhope grumbled. He too was already beginning to chafe at the uncongenial exile of Hanaford, and he shared his daughter’s desire to despatch the tiresome business before them.

Mr. Tredegar had meanwhile appeared, and when Amherst had been named to him, and had received his Olympian nod, Bessy anxiously imparted her difficulty.

“But how ill is Mr. Truscomb? Do you think he can take us over the mills tomorrow?” she appealed to Amherst.

“I’m afraid not; I am sure he can’t. He has a touch of bronchitis.”

This announcement was met by a general outcry, in which sympathy for the manager was not the predominating note. Mrs. Ansell saved the situation by breathing feelingly: “Poor man!” and after a decent echo of the phrase, and a doubtful glance at her father, Mrs. Westmore said: “If it’s bronchitis he may be ill for days, and what in the world are we to do?”

“Pack up and come back later,” suggested Mr. Langhope briskly; but while Bessy sighed “Oh, that dreadful journey!” Mr. Tredegar interposed with authority: “One moment, Langhope, please. Mr. Amherst, is Mrs. Westmore expected at the mills?”

“Yes, I believe they know she is coming.”

“Then I think, my dear, that to go back to New York without showing yourself would, under the circumstances, be — er — an error in judgment.”

“Good Lord, Tredegar, you don’t expect to keep us kicking our heels here for days?” her father ejaculated.

“I can certainly not afford to employ mine in that manner for even a fraction of a day,” rejoined the lawyer, always acutely resentful of the suggestion that he had a disengaged moment; “but meanwhile —— ”

“Father,” Bessy interposed, with an eagerly flushing cheek, “don’t you see that the only thing for us to do is to go over the mills now — at once — with Mr. Amherst?”

Mr. Langhope stared: he was always adventurously ready to unmake plans, but it flustered him to be called on to remake them. “Eh — what? Now — at once? But Gaines was to have gone with us, and how on earth are we to get at him? He telephoned me that, as the visit was given up, he should ride out to his farm.”

“Oh, never mind — or, at least, all the better!” his daughter urged. “We can see the mills just as well without him; and we shall get on so much more quickly.”

“Well — well — what do you say, Tredegar?” murmured Mr. Langhope, allured by her last argument; and Bessy, clasping her hands, summed up enthusiastically: “And I shall understand so much better without a lot of people trying to explain to me at once!”

Her sudden enthusiasm surprised no one, for even Mrs. Ansell, expert as she was in the interpreting of tones, set it down to the natural desire to have done as quickly as might be with Hanaford.

“Mrs. Westmore has left her little girl at home,” she said to Amherst, with a smile intended to counteract the possible ill-effect of the impression.

But Amherst suspected no slight in his employer’s eagerness to visit Westmore. His overmastering thought was one of joy as the fulness of his opportunity broke on him. To show her the mills himself — to bring her face to face with her people, unhampered by Truscomb’s jealous vigilance, and Truscomb’s false explanations; to see the angel of pity stir the depths of those unfathomable eyes, when they rested, perhaps for the first time, on suffering that it was in their power to smile away as easily as they had smiled away his own distrust — all this the wonderful moment had brought him, and thoughts and arguments thronged so hot on his lips that he kept silence, fearing lest he should say too much.

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