Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXX

ON a September day, somewhat more than a year and a half after Bessy Amherst’s death, her husband and his mother sat at luncheon in the dining-room of the Westmore house at Hanaford.

The house was John Amherst’s now, and shortly after the loss of his wife he had established himself there with his mother. By a will made some six months before her death, Bessy had divided her estate between her husband and daughter, placing Cicely’s share in trust, and appointing Mr. Langhope and Amherst as her guardians. As the latter was also her trustee, the whole management of the estate devolved on him, while his control of the Westmore mills was ensured by his receiving a slightly larger proportion of the stock than his step-daughter.

The will had come as a surprise, not only to Amherst himself, but to his wife’s family, and more especially to her legal adviser. Mr. Tredegar had in fact had nothing to do with the drawing of the instrument; but as it had been drawn in due form, and by a firm of excellent standing, he was obliged, in spite of his private views, and Mr. Langhope’s open adjurations that he should “do something,” to declare that there was no pretext for questioning the validity of the document.

To Amherst the will was something more than a proof of his wife’s confidence: it came as a reconciling word from her grave. For the date showed that it had been made at a moment when he supposed himself to have lost all influence over her — on the morrow of the day when she had stipulated that he should give up the management of the Westmore mills, and yield the care of her property to Mr. Tredegar.

While she smote him with one hand, she sued for pardon with the other; and the contradiction was so characteristic, it explained and excused in so touching a way the inconsistencies of her impulsive heart and hesitating mind, that he was filled with that tender compunction, that searching sense of his own shortcomings, which generous natures feel when they find they have underrated the generosity of others. But Amherst’s was not an introspective mind, and his sound moral sense told him, when the first pang of self-reproach had subsided, that he had done his best by his wife, and was in no way to blame if her recognition of the fact had come too late. The self-reproach subsided; and, instead of the bitterness of the past, it left a softened memory which made him take up his task with the sense that he was now working with Bessy and not against her.

Yet perhaps, after all, it was chiefly the work itself which had healed old wounds, and quelled the tendency to vain regrets. Amherst was only thirty-four; and in the prime of his energies the task he was made for had been given back to him. To a sound nature, which finds its outlet in fruitful action, nothing so simplifies the complexities of life, so tends to a large acceptance of its vicissitudes and mysteries, as the sense of doing something each day toward clearing one’s own bit of the wilderness. And this was the joy at last conceded to Amherst. The mills were virtually his; and the fact that he ruled them not only in his own right but as Cicely’s representative, made him doubly eager to justify his wife’s trust in him.

Mrs. Amherst, looking up from a telegram which the parlour-maid had handed her, smiled across the table at her son.

“From Maria Ansell — they are all coming tomorrow.”

“Ah — that’s good,” Amherst rejoined. “I should have been sorry if Cicely had not been here.”

“Mr. Langhope is coming too,” his mother continued. “I’m glad of that, John.”

“Yes,” Amherst again assented.

The morrow was to be a great day at Westmore. The Emergency Hospital, planned in the first months of his marriage, and abandoned in the general reduction of expenditure at the mills, had now been completed on a larger and more elaborate scale, as a memorial to Bessy. The strict retrenchment of all personal expenses, and the leasing of Lynbrook and the town house, had enabled Amherst, in eighteen months, to lay by enough income to carry out this plan, which he was impatient to see executed as a visible commemoration of his wife’s generosity to Westmore. For Amherst persisted in regarding the gift of her fortune as a gift not to himself but to the mills: he looked on himself merely as the agent of her beneficent intentions. He was anxious that Westmore and Hanaford should take the same view; and the opening of the Westmore Memorial Hospital was therefore to be performed with an unwonted degree of ceremony.

“I am glad Mr. Langhope is coming,” Mrs. Amherst repeated, as they rose from the table. “It shows, dear — doesn’t it? — that he’s really gratified — that he appreciates your motive. . . . ”

She raised a proud glance to her tall son, whose head seemed to tower higher than ever above her small proportions. Renewed self-confidence, and the habit of command, had in fact restored the erectness to Amherst’s shoulders and the clearness to his eyes. The cleft between the brows was gone, and his veiled inward gaze had given place to a glance almost as outward-looking and unspeculative as his mother’s.

“It shows — well, yes — what you say!” he rejoined with a slight laugh, and a tap on her shoulder as she passed.

He was under no illusions as to his father-in-law’s attitude: he knew that Mr. Langhope would willingly have broken the will which deprived his grand-daughter of half her inheritance, and that his subsequent show of friendliness was merely a concession to expediency. But in his present mood Amherst almost believed that time and closer relations might turn such sentiments into honest liking. He was very fond of his little step-daughter, and deeply sensible of his obligations toward her; and he hoped that, as Mr. Langhope came to recognize this, it might bring about a better understanding between them.

His mother detained him. “You’re going back to the mills at once? I wanted to consult you about the rooms. Miss Brent had better be next to Cicely?”

“I suppose so — yes. I’ll see you before I go.” He nodded affectionately and passed on, his hands full of papers, into the Oriental smoking-room, now dedicated to the unexpected uses of an office and study.

Mrs. Amherst, as she turned away, found the parlour-maid in the act of opening the front door to the highly-tinted and well-dressed figure of Mrs. Harry Dressel.

“I’m so delighted to hear that you’re expecting Justine,” began Mrs. Dressel as the two ladies passed into the drawing-room.

“Ah, you’ve heard too?” Mrs. Amherst rejoined, enthroning her visitor in one of the monumental plush armchairs beneath the threatening weight of the Bay of Naples.

“I hadn’t till this moment; in fact I flew in to ask for news, and on the door-step there was such a striking-looking young man enquiring for her, and I heard the parlour-maid say she was arriving tomorrow.”

“A young man? Some one you didn’t know?” Striking apparitions of the male sex were of infrequent occurrence at Hanaford, and Mrs. Amherst’s unabated interest in the movement of life caused her to dwell on this statement.

“Oh, no — I’m sure he was a stranger. Extremely slight and pale, with remarkable eyes. He was so disappointed — he seemed sure of finding her.”

“Well, no doubt he’ll come back tomorrow. — You know we’re expecting the whole party,” added Mrs. Amherst, to whom the imparting of good news was always an irresistible temptation.

Mrs. Dressel’s interest deepened at once. “Really? Mr. Langhope too?”

“Yes. It’s a great pleasure to my son.”

“It must be! I’m so glad. I suppose in a way it will be rather sad for Mr. Langhope — seeing everything here so unchanged —— ”

Mrs. Amherst straightened herself a little. “I think he will prefer to find it so,” she said, with a barely perceptible change of tone.

“Oh, I don’t know. They were never very fond of this house.”

There was an added note of authority in Mrs. Dressel’s accent. In the last few months she had been to Europe and had had nervous prostration, and these incontestable evidences of growing prosperity could not always be kept out of her voice and bearing. At any rate, they justified her in thinking that her opinion on almost any subject within the range of human experience was a valuable addition to the sum-total of wisdom; and unabashed by the silence with which her comment was received, she continued her critical survey of the drawing-room.

“Dear Mrs. Amherst — you know I can’t help saying what I think — and I’ve so often wondered why you don’t do this room over. With these high ceilings you could do something lovely in Louis Seize.”

A faint pink rose to Mrs. Amherst’s cheeks. “I don’t think my son would ever care to make any changes here,” she said.

“Oh, I understand his feeling; but when he begins to entertain — and you know poor Bessy always hated this furniture.”

Mrs. Amherst smiled slightly. “Perhaps if he marries again — ” she said, seizing at random on a pretext for changing the subject.

Mrs. Dressel dropped the hands with which she was absent-mindedly assuring herself of the continuance of unbroken relations between her hat and her hair.

Marries again? Why — you don’t mean —? He doesn’t think of it?”

“Not in the least — I spoke figuratively,” her hostess rejoined with a laugh.

“Oh, of course — I see. He really couldn’t marry, could he? I mean, it would be so wrong to Cicely — under the circumstances.”

Mrs. Amherst’s black eye-brows gathered in a slight frown. She had already noticed, on the part of the Hanaford clan, a disposition to regard Amherst as imprisoned in the conditions of his trust, and committed to the obligation of handing on unimpaired to Cicely the fortune his wife’s caprice had bestowed on him; and this open expression of the family view was singularly displeasing to her.

“I had not thought of it in that light — but it’s really of no consequence how one looks at a thing that is not going to happen,” she said carelessly.

“No — naturally; I see you were only joking. He’s so devoted to Cicely, isn’t he?” Mrs. Dressel rejoined, with her bright obtuseness.

A step on the threshold announced Amherst’s approach.

“I’m afraid I must be off, mother — ” he began, halting in the doorway with the instinctive masculine recoil from the afternoon caller.

“Oh, Mr. Amherst, how d’you do? I suppose you’re very busy about tomorrow? I just flew in to find out if Justine was really coming,” Mrs. Dressel explained, a little fluttered by the effort of recalling what she had been saying when he entered.

“I believe my mother expects the whole party,” Amherst replied, shaking hands with the false bonhomie of the man entrapped.

“How delightful! And it’s so nice to think that Mr. Langhope’s arrangement with Justine still works so well,” Mrs. Dressel hastened on, nervously hoping that her volubility would smother any recollection of what he had chanced to overhear.

“Mr. Langhope is lucky in having persuaded Miss Brent to take charge of Cicely,” Mrs. Amherst quietly interposed.

“Yes — and it was so lucky for Justine too! When she came back from Europe with us last autumn, I could see she simply hated the idea of taking up her nursing again.”

Amherst’s face darkened at the allusion, and his mother said hurriedly: “Ah, she was tired, poor child; but I’m only afraid that, after the summer’s rest, she may want some more active occupation than looking after a little girl.”

“Oh, I think not — she’s so fond of Cicely. And of course it’s everything to her to have a comfortable home.”

Mrs. Amherst smiled. “At her age, it’s not always everything.”

Mrs. Dressel stared slightly. “Oh, Justine’s twenty-seven, you know; she’s not likely to marry now,” she said, with the mild finality of the early-wedded.

She rose as she spoke, extending cordial hands of farewell. “You must be so busy preparing for the great day . . . if only it doesn’t rain! . . . No, please, Mr. Amherst! . . . It’s a mere step — I’m walking. . . . ”

That afternoon, as Amherst walked out toward Westmore for a survey of the final preparations, he found that, among the pleasant thoughts accompanying him, one of the pleasantest was the anticipation of seeing Justine Brent.

Among the little group who were to surround him on the morrow, she was the only one discerning enough to understand what the day meant to him, or with sufficient knowledge to judge of the use he had made of his great opportunity. Even now that the opportunity had come, and all obstacles were levelled, sympathy with his work was as much lacking as ever; and only Duplain, at length reinstated as manager, really understood and shared in his aims. But Justine Brent’s sympathy was of a different kind from the manager’s. If less logical, it was warmer, more penetrating — like some fine imponderable fluid, so subtle that it could always find a way through the clumsy processes of human intercourse. Amherst had thought very often of this quality in her during the weeks which followed his abrupt departure for Georgia; and in trying to define it he had said to himself that she felt with her brain.

And now, aside from the instinctive understanding between them, she was set apart in his thoughts by her association with his wife’s last days. On his arrival from the south he had gathered on all sides evidences of her tender devotion to Bessy: even Mr. Tredegar’s chary praise swelled the general commendation. From the surgeons he heard how her unwearied skill had helped them in their fruitless efforts; poor Cicely, awed by her loss, clung to her mother’s friend with childish tenacity; and the young rector of Saint Anne’s, shyly acquitting himself of his visit of condolence, dwelt chiefly on the consolatory thought of Miss Brent’s presence at the death-bed.

The knowledge that Justine had been with his wife till the end had, in fact, done more than anything else to soften Amherst’s regrets; and he had tried to express something of this in the course of his first talk with her. Justine had given him a clear and self-possessed report of the dreadful weeks at Lynbrook; but at his first allusion to her own part in them, she shrank into a state of distress which seemed to plead with him to refrain from even the tenderest touch on her feelings. It was a peculiarity of their friendship that silence and absence had always mysteriously fostered its growth; and he now felt that her reticence deepened the understanding between them as the freest confidences might not have done.

Soon afterward, an opportune attack of nervous prostration had sent Mrs. Harry Dressel abroad; and Justine was selected as her companion. They remained in Europe for six months; and on their return Amherst learned with pleasure that Mr. Langhope had asked Miss Brent to take charge of Cicely.

Mr. Langhope’s sorrow for his daughter had been aggravated by futile wrath at her unaccountable will; and the mixed sentiment thus engendered had found expression in a jealous outpouring of affection toward Cicely. He took immediate possession of the child, and in the first stages of his affliction her companionship had been really consoling. But as time passed, and the pleasant habits of years reasserted themselves, her presence became, in small unacknowledged ways, a source of domestic irritation. Nursery hours disturbed the easy routine of his household; the elderly parlour-maid who had long ruled it resented the intervention of Cicely’s nurse; the little governess, involved in the dispute, broke down and had to be shipped home to Germany; a successor was hard to find, and in the interval Mr. Langhope’s privacy was invaded by a stream of visiting teachers, who were always wanting to consult him about Cicely’s lessons, and lay before him their tiresome complaints and perplexities. Poor Mr. Langhope found himself in the position of the mourner who, in the first fervour of bereavement, has undertaken the construction of an imposing monument without having counted the cost. He had meant that his devotion to Cicely should be a monument to his paternal grief; but the foundations were scarcely laid when he found that the funds of time and patience were almost exhausted.

Pride forbade his consigning Cicely to her step-father, though Mrs. Amherst would gladly have undertaken her care; Mrs. Ansell’s migratory habits made it impossible for her to do more than intermittently hover and advise; and a new hope rose before Mr. Langhope when it occurred to him to appeal to Miss Brent.

The experiment had proved a success, and when Amherst met Justine again she had been for some months in charge of the little girl, and change and congenial occupation had restored her to a normal view of life. There was no trace in her now of the dumb misery which had haunted him at their parting; she was again the vivid creature who seemed more charged with life than any one he had ever known. The crisis through which she had passed showed itself only in a smoothing of the brow and deepening of the eyes, as though a bloom of experience had veiled without deadening the first brilliancy of youth.

As he lingered on the image thus evoked, he recalled Mrs. Dressel’s words: “Justine is twenty-seven — she’s not likely to marry now.”

Oddly enough, he had never thought of her marrying — but now that he heard the possibility questioned, he felt a disagreeable conviction of its inevitableness. Mrs. Dressel’s view was of course absurd. In spite of Justine’s feminine graces, he had formerly felt in her a kind of elfin immaturity, as of a flitting Ariel with untouched heart and senses: it was only of late that she had developed the subtle quality which calls up thoughts of love. Not marry? Why, the vagrant fire had just lighted on her — and the fact that she was poor and unattached, with her own way to make, and no setting of pleasure and elegance to embellish her — these disadvantages seemed as nothing to Amherst against the warmth of personality in which she moved. And besides, she would never be drawn to the kind of man who needed fine clothes and luxury to point him to the charm of sex. She was always finished and graceful in appearance, with the pretty woman’s art of wearing her few plain dresses as if they were many and varied; yet no one could think of her as attaching much importance to the upholstery of life. . . . No, the man who won her would be of a different type, have other inducements to offer . . . and Amherst found himself wondering just what those inducements would be.

Suddenly he remembered something his mother had said as he left the house — something about a distinguished-looking young man who had called to ask for Miss Brent. Mrs. Amherst, innocently inquisitive in small matters, had followed her son into the hall to ask the parlour-maid if the gentleman had left his name; and the parlour-maid had answered in the negative. The young man was evidently not indigenous: all the social units of Hanaford were intimately known to each other. He was a stranger, therefore, presumably drawn there by the hope of seeing Miss Brent. But if he knew that she was coming he must be intimately acquainted with her movements. . . . The thought came to Amherst as an unpleasant surprise. It showed him for the first time how little he knew of Justine’s personal life, of the ties she might have formed outside the Lynbrook circle. After all, he had seen her chiefly not among her own friends but among his wife’s. Was it reasonable to suppose that a creature of her keen individuality would be content to subsist on the fringe of other existences? Somewhere, of course, she must have a centre of her own, must be subject to influences of which he was wholly ignorant. And since her departure from Lynbrook he had known even less of her life. She had spent the previous winter with Mr. Langhope in New York, where Amherst had seen her only on his rare visits to Cicely; and Mr. Langhope, on going abroad for the summer, had established his grand-daughter in a Bar Harbour cottage, where, save for two flying visits from Mrs. Ansell, Miss Brent had reigned alone till his return in September.

Very likely, Amherst reflected, the mysterious visitor was a Bar Harbour acquaintance — no, more than an acquaintance: a friend. And as Mr. Langhope’s party had left Mount Desert but three days previously, the arrival of the unknown at Hanaford showed a singular impatience to rejoin Miss Brent.

As he reached this point in his meditations, Amherst found himself at the street-corner where it was his habit to pick up the Westmore trolley. Just as it bore down on him, and he sprang to the platform, another car, coming in from the mills, stopped to discharge its passengers. Among them Amherst noticed a slender undersized man in shabby clothes, about whose retreating back, as he crossed the street to signal a Station Avenue car, there was something dimly familiar, and suggestive of troubled memories. Amherst leaned out and looked again: yes, the back was certainly like Dr. Wyant’s — but what could Wyant be doing at Hanaford, and in a Westmore car?

Amherst’s first impulse was to spring out and overtake him. He knew how admirably the young physician had borne himself at Lynbrook; he even recalled Dr. Garford’s saying, with his kindly sceptical smile: “Poor Wyant believed to the end that we could save her” — and felt again his own inward movement of thankfulness that the cruel miracle had not been worked.

He owed a great deal to Wyant, and had tried to express his sense of the fact by warm words and a liberal fee; but since Bessy’s death he had never returned to Lynbrook, and had consequently lost sight of the young doctor.

Now he felt that he ought to try to rejoin him, to find out why he was at Hanaford, and make some proffer of hospitality; but if the stranger were really Wyant, his choice of the Station Avenue car made it appear that he was on his way to catch the New York express; and in any case Amherst’s engagements at Westmore made immediate pursuit impossible.

He consoled himself with the thought that if the physician was not leaving Hanaford he would be certain to call at the house; and then his mind flew back to Justine Brent. But the pleasure of looking forward to her arrival was disturbed by new feelings. A sense of reserve and embarrassment had sprung up in his mind, checking that free mental communion which, as he now perceived, had been one of the unconscious promoters of their friendship. It was as though his thoughts faced a stranger instead of the familiar presence which had so long dwelt in them; and he began to see that the feeling of intelligence existing between Justine and himself was not the result of actual intimacy, but merely of the charm she knew how to throw over casual intercourse.

When he had left his house, his mind was like a summer sky, all open blue and sunlit rolling clouds; but gradually the clouds had darkened and massed themselves, till they drew an impenetrable veil over the upper light and stretched threateningly across his whole horizon.

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