Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXXI

THE celebrations at Westmore were over. Hanaford society, mustering for the event, had streamed through the hospital, inspected the clinic, complimented Amherst, recalled itself to Mr. Langhope and Mrs. Ansell, and streamed out again to regain its carriages and motors.

The chief actors in the ceremony were also taking leave. Mr. Langhope, somewhat pale and nervous after the ordeal, had been helped into the Gaines landau with Mrs. Ansell and Cicely; Mrs. Amherst had accepted a seat in the Dressel victoria; and Westy Gaines, with an empressement slightly tinged by condescension, was in the act of placing his electric phaeton at Miss Brent’s disposal.

She stood in the pretty white porch of the hospital, looking out across its squares of flower-edged turf at the long street of Westmore. In the warm gold-powdered light of September the factory town still seemed a blot on the face of nature; yet here and there, on all sides, Justine’s eye saw signs of humanizing change. The rough banks along the street had been levelled and sodded; young maples, set in rows, already made a long festoon of gold against the dingy house-fronts; and the houses themselves — once so irreclaimably outlawed and degraded — showed, in their white-curtained windows, their flowery white-railed yards, a growing approach to civilized human dwellings.

Glancing the other way, one still met the grim pile of factories cutting the sky with their harsh roof-lines and blackened chimneys; but here also were signs of improvement. One of the mills had already been enlarged, another was scaffolded for the same purpose, and young trees and neatly-fenced turf replaced the surrounding desert of trampled earth.

As Amherst came out of the hospital, he heard Miss Brent declining a seat in Westy’s phaeton.

“Thank you so much; but there’s some one here I want to see first — one of the operatives — and I can easily take a Hanaford car.” She held out her hand with the smile that ran like colour over her whole face; and Westy, nettled by this unaccountable disregard of her privileges, mounted his chariot alone.

As he glided mournfully away, Amherst turned to Justine. “You wanted to see the Dillons?” he asked.

Their eyes met, and she smiled again. He had never seen her so sunned-over, so luminous, since the distant November day when they had picnicked with Cicely beside the swamp. He wondered vaguely if she were more elaborately dressed than usual, or if the festal impression she produced were simply a reflection of her mood.

“I do want to see the Dillons — how did you guess?” she rejoined; and Amherst felt a sudden impulse to reply: “For the same reason that made you think of them.”

The fact of her remembering the Dillons made him absurdly happy; it re-established between them the mental communion that had been checked by his thoughts of the previous day.

“I suppose I’m rather self-conscious about the Dillons, because they’re one of my object lessons — they illustrate the text,” he said laughing, as they went down the steps.

Westmore had been given a half-holiday for the opening of the hospital, and as Amherst and Justine turned into the street, parties of workers were dispersing toward their houses. They were still a dull-eyed stunted throng, to whom air and movement seemed to have been too long denied; but there was more animation in the groups, more light in individual faces; many of the younger men returned Amherst’s good-day with a look of friendliness, and the women to whom he spoke met him with a volubility that showed the habit of frequent intercourse.

“How much you have done!” Justine exclaimed, as he rejoined her after one of these asides; but the next moment he saw a shade of embarrassment cross her face, as though she feared to have suggested comparisons she had meant to avoid.

He answered quite naturally: “Yes — I’m beginning to see my way now; and it’s wonderful how they respond — ” and they walked on without a shadow of constraint between them, while he described to her what was already done, and what direction his projected experiments were taking.

The Dillons had been placed in charge of one of the old factory tenements, now transformed into a lodging-house for unmarried operatives. Even its harsh brick exterior, hung with creepers and brightened by flower-borders, had taken on a friendly air; and indoors it had a clean sunny kitchen, a big dining-room with cheerful-coloured walls, and a room where the men could lounge and smoke about a table covered with papers.

The creation of these model lodging-houses had always been a favourite scheme of Amherst’s, and the Dillons, incapacitated for factory work, had shown themselves admirably adapted to their new duties. In Mrs. Dillon’s small hot sitting-room, among the starched sofa-tidies and pink shells that testified to the family prosperity, Justine shone with enjoyment and sympathy. She had always taken an interest in the lives and thoughts of working-people: not so much the constructive interest of the sociological mind as the vivid imaginative concern of a heart open to every human appeal. She liked to hear about their hard struggles and small pathetic successes: the children’s sicknesses, the father’s lucky job, the little sum they had been able to put by, the plans they had formed for Tommy’s advancement, and how Sue’s good marks at school were still ahead of Mrs. Hagan’s Mary’s.

“What I really like is to gossip with them, and give them advice about the baby’s cough, and the cheapest way to do their marketing,” she said laughing, as she and Amherst emerged once more into the street. “It’s the same kind of interest I used to feel in my dolls and guinea pigs — a managing, interfering old maid’s interest. I don’t believe I should care a straw for them if I couldn’t dose them and order them about.”

Amherst laughed too: he recalled the time when he had dreamed that just such warm personal sympathy was her sex’s destined contribution to the broad work of human beneficence. Well, it had not been a dream: here was a woman whose deeds spoke for her. And suddenly the thought came to him: what might they not do at Westmore together! The brightness of it was blinding — like the dazzle of sunlight which faced them as they walked toward the mills. But it left him speechless, confused — glad to have a pretext for routing Duplain out of the office, introducing him to Miss Brent, and asking him for the keys of the buildings. . . .

It was wonderful, again, how she grasped what he was doing in the mills, and saw how his whole scheme hung together, harmonizing the work and leisure of the operatives, instead of treating them as half machine, half man, and neglecting the man for the machine. Nor was she content with Utopian generalities: she wanted to know the how and why of each case, to hear what conclusions he drew from his results, to what solutions his experiments pointed.

In explaining the mill work he forgot his constraint and returned to the free comradery of mind that had always marked their relation. He turned the key reluctantly in the last door, and paused a moment on the threshold.

“Anything more?” he said, with a laugh meant to hide his desire to prolong their tour.

She glanced up at the sun, which still swung free of the tall factory roofs.

“As much as you’ve time for. Cicely doesn’t need me this afternoon, and I can’t tell when I shall see Westmore again.”

Her words fell on him with a chill. His smile faded, and he looked away for a moment.

“But I hope Cicely will be here often,” he said.

“Oh, I hope so too,” she rejoined, with seeming unconsciousness of any connection between the wish and her previous words.

Amherst hesitated. He had meant to propose a visit to the old Eldorado building, which now at last housed the long-desired night-schools and nursery; but since she had spoken he felt a sudden indifference to showing her anything more. What was the use, if she meant to leave Cicely, and drift out of his reach? He could get on well enough without sympathy and comprehension, but his momentary indulgence in them made the ordinary taste of life a little flat.

“There must be more to see?” she continued, as they turned back toward the village; and he answered absently: “Oh, yes — if you like.”

He heard the change in his own voice, and knew by her quick side-glance that she had heard it too.

“Please let me see everything that is compatible with my getting a car to Hanaford by six.”

“Well, then — the night-school next,” he said with an effort at lightness; and to shake off the importunity of his own thoughts he added carelessly, as they walked on: “By the way — it seems improbable — but I think I saw Dr. Wyant yesterday in a Westmore car.”

She echoed the name in surprise. “Dr. Wyant? Really! Are you sure?”

“Not quite; but if it wasn’t he it was his ghost. You haven’t heard of his being at Hanaford?”

“No. I’ve heard nothing of him for ages.”

Something in her tone made him return her side-glance; but her voice, on closer analysis, denoted only indifference, and her profile seemed to express the same negative sentiment. He remembered a vague Lynbrook rumour to the effect that the young doctor had been attracted to Miss Brent. Such floating seeds of gossip seldom rooted themselves in his mind, but now the fact acquired a new significance, and he wondered how he could have thought so little of it at the time. Probably her somewhat exaggerated air of indifference simply meant that she had been bored by Wyant’s attentions, and that the reminder of them still roused a slight self-consciousness.

Amherst was relieved by this conclusion, and murmuring: “Oh, I suppose it can’t have been he,” led her rapidly on to the Eldorado. But the old sense of free communion was again obstructed, and her interest in the details of the schools and nursery now seemed to him only a part of her wonderful art of absorbing herself in other people’s affairs. He was a fool to have been duped by it — to have fancied it was anything more personal than a grace of manner.

As she turned away from inspecting the blackboards in one of the empty school-rooms he paused before her and said suddenly: “You spoke of not seeing Westmore again. Are you thinking of leaving Cicely?”

The words were almost the opposite of those he had intended to speak; it was as if some irrepressible inner conviction flung defiance at his surface distrust of her.

She stood still also, and he saw a thought move across her face. “Not immediately — but perhaps when Mr. Langhope can make some other arrangement —— ”

Owing to the half-holiday they had the school-building to themselves, and the fact of being alone with her, without fear of interruption, woke in Amherst an uncontrollable longing to taste for once the joy of unguarded utterance.

“Why do you go?” he asked, moving close to the platform on which she stood.

She hesitated, resting her hand on the teacher’s desk. Her eyes were kind, but he thought her tone was cold.

“This easy life is rather out of my line,” she said at length, with a smile that draped her words in vagueness.

Amherst looked at her again — she seemed to be growing remote and inaccessible. “You mean that you don’t want to stay?”

His tone was so abrupt that it called forth one of her rare blushes. “No — not that. I have been very happy with Cicely — but soon I shall have to be doing something else.”

Why was she blushing? And what did her last phrase mean? “Something else —?” The blood hummed in his ears — he began to hope she would not answer too quickly.

She had sunk into the seat behind the desk, propping her elbows on its lid, and letting her interlaced hands support her chin. A little bunch of violets which had been thrust into the folds of her dress detached itself and fell to the floor.

“What I mean is,” she said in a low voice, raising her eyes to Amherst’s, “that I’ve had a great desire lately to get back to real work — my special work. . . . I’ve been too idle for the last year — I want to do some hard nursing; I want to help people who are miserable.”

She spoke earnestly, almost passionately, and as he listened his undefined fear was lifted. He had never before seen her in this mood, with brooding brows, and the darkness of the world’s pain in her eyes. All her glow had faded — she was a dun thrush-like creature, clothed in semi-tints; yet she seemed much nearer than when her smile shot light on him.

He stood motionless, his eyes absently fixed on the bunch of violets at her feet. Suddenly he raised his head, and broke out with a boyish blush: “Could it have been Wyant who was trying to see you?”

“Dr. Wyant — trying to see me?” She lowered her hands to the desk, and sat looking at him with open wonder.

He saw the irrelevance of his question, and burst, in spite of himself, into youthful laughter.

“I mean — It’s only that an unknown visitor called at the house yesterday, and insisted that you must have arrived. He seemed so annoyed at not finding you, that I thought . . . I imagined . . . it must be some one who knew you very well . . . and who had followed you here . . . for some special reason. . . . ”

Her colour rose again, as if caught from his; but her eyes still declared her ignorance. “Some special reason ——?”

“And just now,” he blurted out, “when you said you might not stay much longer with Cicely — I thought of the visit — and wondered if there was some one you meant to marry. . . . ”

A silence fell between them. Justine rose slowly, her eyes screened under the veil she had lowered. “No — I don’t mean to marry,” she said, half-smiling, as she came down from the platform.

Restored to his level, her small shadowy head just in a line with his eyes, she seemed closer, more approachable and feminine — yet Amherst did not dare to speak.

She took a few steps toward the window, looking out into the deserted street. “It’s growing dark — I must go home,” she said.

“Yes,” he assented absently as he followed her. He had no idea what she was saying. The inner voices in which they habitually spoke were growing louder than outward words. Or was it only the voice of his own desires that he heard — the cry of new hopes and unguessed capacities of living? All within him was flood-tide: this was the top of life, surely — to feel her alike in his brain and his pulses, to steep sight and hearing in the joy of her nearness, while all the while thought spoke clear: “This is the mate of my mind.”

He began again abruptly. “Wouldn’t you marry, if it gave you the chance to do what you say — if it offered you hard work, and the opportunity to make things better . . . for a great many people . . . as no one but yourself could do it?”

It was a strange way of putting his case: he was aware of it before he ended. But it had not occurred to him to tell her that she was lovely and desirable — in his humility he thought that what he had to give would plead for him better than what he was.

The effect produced on her by his question, though undecipherable, was extraordinary. She stiffened a little, remaining quite motionless, her eyes on the street.

You!” she just breathed; and he saw that she was beginning to tremble.

His wooing had been harsh and clumsy — he was afraid it had offended her, and his hand trembled too as it sought hers.

“I only thought — it would be a dull business to most women — and I’m tied to it for life . . . but I thought . . . I’ve seen so often how you pity suffering . . . how you long to relieve it. . . . ”

She turned away from him with a shuddering sigh. “Oh, I hate suffering!” she broke out, raising her hands to her face.

Amherst was frightened. How senseless of him to go on reiterating the old plea! He ought to have pleaded for himself — to have let the man in him seek her and take his defeat, instead of beating about the flimsy bush of philanthropy.

“I only meant — I was trying to make my work recommend me . . . ” he said with a half-laugh, as she remained silent, her eyes still turned away.

The silence continued for a long time — it stretched between them like a narrowing interminable road, down which, with a leaden heart, he seemed to watch her gradually disappearing. And then, unexpectedly, as she shrank to a tiny speck at the dip of the road, the perspective was mysteriously reversed, and he felt her growing nearer again, felt her close to him — felt her hand in his.

“I’m really just like other women, you know — I shall like it because it’s your work,” she said.

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