Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXXII

EVERY one agreed that, on the whole, Mr. Langhope had behaved extremely well.

He was just beginning to regain his equanimity in the matter of the will — to perceive that, in the eyes of the public, something important and distinguished was being done at Westmore, and that the venture, while reducing Cicely’s income during her minority, might, in some incredible way, actually make for its ultimate increase. So much Mr. Langhope, always eager to take the easiest view of the inevitable, had begun to let fall in his confidential comments on Amherst; when his newly-regained balance was rudely shaken by the news of his son-in-law’s marriage.

The free expression of his anger was baffled by the fact that, even by the farthest stretch of self-extenuating logic, he could find no one to blame for the event but himself.

“Why on earth don’t you say so — don’t you call me a triple-dyed fool for bringing them together?” he challenged Mrs. Ansell, as they had the matter out together in the small intimate drawing-room of her New York apartment.

Mrs. Ansell, stirring her tea with a pensive hand, met the challenge composedly.

“At present you’re doing it for me,” she reminded him; “and after all, I’m not so disposed to agree with you.”

“Not agree with me? But you told me not to engage Miss Brent! Didn’t you tell me not to engage her?”

She made a hesitating motion of assent.

“But, good Lord, how was I to help myself? No man was ever in such a quandary!” he broke off, leaping back to the other side of the argument.

“No,” she said, looking up at him suddenly. “I believe that, for the only time in your life, you were sorry then that you hadn’t married me.”

She held his eyes for a moment with a look of gentle malice; then he laughed, and drew forth his cigarette-case.

“Oh, come — you’ve inverted the formula,” he said, reaching out for the enamelled match-box at his elbow. She let the pleasantry pass with a slight smile, and he went on reverting to his grievance: “Why didn’t you want me to engage Miss Brent?”

“Oh, I don’t know . . . some instinct.”

“You won’t tell me?”

“I couldn’t if I tried; and now, after all —— ”

“After all — what?”

She reflected. “You’ll have Cicely off your mind, I mean.”

“Cicely off my mind?” Mr. Langhope was beginning to find his charming friend less consolatory than usual. After all, the most magnanimous woman has her circuitous way of saying I told you so. “As if any good governess couldn’t have done that for me!” he grumbled.

“Ah — the present care for her. But I was looking ahead,” she rejoined.

“To what — if I may ask?”

“The next few years — when Mrs. Amherst may have children of her own.”

“Children of her own?” He bounded up, furious at the suggestion.

“Had it never occurred to you?”

“Hardly as a source of consolation!”

“I think a philosophic mind might find it so.”

“I should really be interested to know how!”

Mrs. Ansell put down her cup, and again turned her gentle tolerant eyes upon him.

“Mr. Amherst, as a father, will take a more conservative view of his duties. Every one agrees that, in spite of his theories, he has a good head for business; and whatever he does at Westmore for the advantage of his children will naturally be for Cicely’s advantage too.”

Mr. Langhope returned her gaze thoughtfully. “There’s something in what you say,” he admitted after a pause. “But it doesn’t alter the fact that, with Amherst unmarried, the whole of the Westmore fortune would have gone back to Cicely — where it belongs.”

“Possibly. But it was so unlikely that he would remain unmarried.”

“I don’t see why! A man of honour would have felt bound to keep the money for Cicely.”

“But you must remember that, from Mr. Amherst’s standpoint, the money belongs rather to Westmore than to Cicely.”

“He’s no better than a socialist, then!”

“Well — supposing he isn’t: the birth of a son and heir will cure that.”

Mr. Langhope winced, but she persisted gently: “It’s really safer for Cicely as it is — ” and before the end of the conference he found himself confessing, half against his will: “Well, since he hadn’t the decency to remain single, I’m thankful he hasn’t inflicted a stranger on us; and I shall never forget what Miss Brent did for my poor Bessy. . . . ”

It was the view she had wished to bring him to, and the view which, in due course, with all his accustomed grace and adaptability, he presented to the searching gaze of a society profoundly moved by the incident of Amherst’s marriage. “Of course, if Mr. Langhope approves — ” society reluctantly murmured; and that Mr. Langhope did approve was presently made manifest by every outward show of consideration toward the newly-wedded couple.

Amherst and Justine had been married in September; and after a holiday in Canada and the Adirondacks they returned to Hanaford for the winter. Amherst had proposed a short flight to Europe; but his wife preferred to settle down at once to her new duties.

The announcement of her marriage had been met by Mrs. Dressel with a comment which often afterward returned to her memory. “It’s splendid for you, of course, dear, in one way,” her friend had murmured, between disparagement and envy — “that is, if you can stand talking about the Westmore mill-hands all the rest of your life.”

“Oh, but I couldn’t — I should hate it!” Justine had energetically rejoined; meeting Mrs. Dressel’s admonitory “Well, then?” with the laughing assurance that she meant to lead the conversation.

She knew well enough what the admonition meant. To Amherst, so long thwarted in his chosen work, the subject of Westmore was becoming an idée fixe; and it was natural that Hanaford should class him as a man of one topic. But Justine had guessed at his other side; a side as long thwarted, and far less articulate, which she intended to wake into life. She had felt it in him from the first, though their talks had so uniformly turned on the subject which palled on Hanaford; and it had been revealed to her during the silent hours among his books, when she had grown into such close intimacy with his mind.

She did not, assuredly, mean to spend the rest of her days talking about the Westmore mill-hands; but in the arrogance of her joy she wished to begin her married life in the setting of its habitual duties, and to achieve the victory of evoking the secret unsuspected Amherst out of the preoccupied business man chained to his task. Dull lovers might have to call on romantic scenes to wake romantic feelings; but Justine’s glancing imagination leapt to the challenge of extracting poetry from the prose of routine.

And this was precisely the triumph that the first months brought her. To mortal eye, Amherst and Justine seemed to be living at Hanaford: in reality they were voyaging on unmapped seas of adventure. The seas were limitless, and studded with happy islands: every fresh discovery they made about each other, every new agreement of ideas and feelings, offered itself to these intrepid explorers as a friendly coast where they might beach their keel and take their bearings. Thus, in the thronging hum of metaphor, Justine sometimes pictured their relation; seeing it, again, as a journey through crowded populous cities, where every face she met was Amherst’s; or, contrarily, as a multiplication of points of perception, so that one became, for the world’s contact, a surface so multitudinously alive that the old myth of hearing the grass grow and walking the rainbow explained itself as the heightening of personality to the utmost pitch of sympathy.

In reality, the work at Westmore became an almost necessary sedative after these flights into the blue. She felt sometimes that they would have been bankrupted of sensations if daily hours of drudgery had not provided a reservoir in which fresh powers of enjoyment could slowly gather. And their duties had the rarer quality of constituting, precisely, the deepest, finest bond between them, the clarifying element which saved their happiness from stagnation, and kept it in the strong mid-current of human feeling.

It was this element in their affection which, in the last days of November, was unexpectedly put on trial. Mr. Langhope, since his return from his annual visit to Europe, showed signs of diminishing strength and elasticity. He had had to give up his nightly dinner parties, to desert his stall at the Opera: to take, in short, as he plaintively put it, his social pleasures homoeopathically. Certain of his friends explained the change by saying that he had never been “quite the same” since his daughter’s death; while others found its determining cause in the shock of Amherst’s second marriage. But this insinuation Mr. Langhope in due time discredited by writing to ask the Amhersts if they would not pity his loneliness and spend the winter in town with him. The proposal came in a letter to Justine, which she handed to her husband one afternoon on his return from the mills.

She sat behind the tea-table in the Westmore drawing-room, now at last transformed, not into Mrs. Dressel’s vision of “something lovely in Louis Seize,” but into a warm yet sober setting for books, for scattered flowers, for deep chairs and shaded lamps in pleasant nearness to each other.

Amherst raised his eyes from the letter, thinking as he did so how well her bright head, with its flame-like play of meanings, fitted into the background she had made for it. Still unobservant of external details, he was beginning to feel a vague well-being of the eye wherever her touch had passed.

“Well, we must do it,” he said simply.

“Oh, must we?” she murmured, holding out his cup.

He smiled at her note of dejection. “Unnatural woman! New York versus Hanaford — do you really dislike it so much?”

She tried to bring a tone of consent into her voice. “I shall be very glad to be with Cicely again — and that, of course,” she reflected, “is the reason why Mr. Langhope wants us.”

“Well — if it is, it’s a good reason.”

“Yes. But how much shall you be with us?”

“If you say so, I’ll arrange to get away for a month or two.”

“Oh, no: I don’t want that!” she said, with a smile that triumphed a little. “But why should not Cicely come here?”

“If Mr. Langhope is cut off from his usual amusements, I’m afraid that would only make him more lonely.”

“Yes, I suppose so.” She put aside her untasted cup, resting her elbows on her knees, and her chin on her clasped hands, in the attitude habitual to her in moments of inward debate.

Amherst rose and seated himself on the sofa beside her. “Dear! What is it?” he said, drawing her hands down, so that she had to turn her face to his.

“Nothing . . . I don’t know . . . a superstition. I’ve been so happy here!”

“Is our happiness too perishable to be transplanted?”

She smiled and answered by another question. “You don’t mind doing it, then?”

Amherst hesitated. “Shall I tell you? I feel that it’s a sort of ring of Polycrates. It may buy off the jealous gods.”

A faint shrinking from some importunate suggestion seemed to press her closer to him. “Then you feel they are jealous?” she breathed, in a half-laugh.

“I pity them if they’re not!”

“Yes,” she agreed, rallying to his tone. “I only had a fancy that they might overlook such a dull place as Hanaford.”

Amherst drew her to him. “Isn’t it, on the contrary, in the ash-heaps that the rag-pickers prowl?”

There was no disguising it: she was growing afraid of her happiness. Her husband’s analogy of the ring expressed her fear. She seemed to herself to carry a blazing jewel on her breast — something that singled her out for human envy and divine pursuit. She had a preposterous longing to dress plainly and shabbily, to subdue her voice and gestures, to try to slip through life unnoticed; yet all the while she knew that her jewel would shoot its rays through every disguise. And from the depths of ancient atavistic instincts came the hope that Amherst was right — that by sacrificing their precious solitude to Mr. Langhope’s convenience they might still deceive the gods.

Once pledged to her new task, Justine, as usual, espoused it with ardour. It was pleasant, even among greater joys, to see her husband again frankly welcomed by Mr. Langhope; to see Cicely bloom into happiness at their coming; and to overhear Mr. Langhope exclaim, in a confidential aside to his son-in-law: “It’s wonderful, the bien-être that wife of yours diffuses about her!”

The element of bien-être was the only one in which Mr. Langhope could draw breath; and to those who kept him immersed in it he was prodigal of delicate attentions. The experiment, in short, was a complete success; and even Amherst’s necessary weeks at Hanaford had the merit of giving a finer flavour to his brief appearances.

Of all this Justine was thinking as she drove down Fifth Avenue one January afternoon to meet her husband at the Grand Central station. She had tamed her happiness at last: the quality of fear had left it, and it nestled in her heart like some wild creature subdued to human ways. And, as her inward bliss became more and more a quiet habit of the mind, the longing to help and minister returned, absorbing her more deeply in her husband’s work.

She dismissed the carriage at the station, and when his train had arrived they emerged together into the cold winter twilight and turned up Madison Avenue. These walks home from the station gave them a little more time to themselves than if they had driven; and there was always so much to tell on both sides. This time the news was all good: the work at Westmore was prospering, and on Justine’s side there was a more cheerful report of Mr. Langhope’s health, and — best of all — his promise to give them Cicely for the summer. Amherst and Justine were both anxious that the child should spend more time at Hanaford, that her young associations should begin to gather about Westmore; and Justine exulted in the fact that the suggestion had come from Mr. Langhope himself, while she and Amherst were still planning how to lead him up to it.

They reached the house while this triumph was still engaging them; and in the doorway Amherst turned to her with a smile.

“And of course — dear man! — he believes the idea is all his. There’s nothing you can’t make people believe, you little Jesuit!”

“I don’t think there is!” she boasted, falling gaily into his tone; and then, as the door opened, and she entered the hall, her eyes fell on a blotted envelope which lay among the letters on the table.

The parlour-maid proffered it with a word of explanation. “A gentleman left it for you, madam; he asked to see you, and said he’d call for the answer in a day or two.”

“Another begging letter, I suppose,” said Amherst, turning into the drawing-room, where Mr. Langhope and Cicely awaited them; and Justine, carelessly pushing the envelope into her muff, murmured “I suppose so” as she followed him.

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