Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXXIX

WHEN Amherst, returning late that afternoon from Westmore, learned of his wife’s departure, and read the note she had left, he found it, for a time, impossible to bring order out of the confusion of feeling produced in him.

His mind had been disturbed enough before. All day, through the routine of work at the mills, he had laboured inwardly with the difficulties confronting him; and his unrest had been increased by the fact that his situation bore an ironic likeness to that in which, from a far different cause, he had found himself at the other crisis of his life. Once more he was threatened with the possibility of having to give up Westmore, at a moment when concentration of purpose and persistency of will were at last beginning to declare themselves in tangible results. Before, he had only given up dreams; now it was their fruition that he was asked to surrender. And he was fixed in his resolve to withdraw absolutely from Westmore if the statement he had to make to Mr. Langhope was received with the least hint of an offensive mental reservation. All forms of moral compromise had always been difficult to Amherst, and like many men absorbed in large and complicated questions he craved above all clearness and peace in his household relation. The first months of his second marriage had brought him, as a part of richer and deeper joys, this enveloping sense of a clear moral medium, in which no subterfuge or equivocation could draw breath. He had felt that henceforth he could pour into his work all the combative energy, the powers of endurance, resistance, renovation, which had once been unprofitably dissipated in the vain attempt to bring some sort of harmony into life with Bessy. Between himself and Justine, apart from their love for each other, there was the wider passion for their kind, which gave back to them an enlarged and deepened reflection of their personal feeling. In such an air it had seemed that no petty egotism could hamper their growth, no misintelligence obscure their love; yet all the while this pure happiness had been unfolding against a sordid background of falsehood and intrigue from which his soul turned with loathing.

Justine was right in assuming that Amherst had never thought much about women. He had vaguely regarded them as meant to people that hazy domain of feeling designed to offer the busy man an escape from thought. His second marriage, leading him to the blissful discovery that woman can think as well as feel, that there are beings of the ornamental sex in whom brain and heart have so enlarged each other that their emotions are as clear as thought, their thoughts as warm as emotions — this discovery had had the effect of making him discard his former summary conception of woman as a bundle of inconsequent impulses, and admit her at a stroke to full mental equality with her lord. The result of this act of manumission was, that in judging Justine he could no longer allow for what was purely feminine in her conduct. It was incomprehensible to him that she, to whom truth had seemed the essential element of life, should have been able to draw breath, and find happiness, in an atmosphere of falsehood and dissimulation. His mind could assent — at least in the abstract — to the reasonableness of her act; but he was still unable to understand her having concealed it from him. He could enter far enough into her feelings to allow for her having kept silence on his first return to Lynbrook, when she was still under the strain of a prolonged and terrible trial; but that she should have continued to do so when he and she had discovered and confessed their love for each other, threw an intolerable doubt on her whole course.

He stayed late at the mills, finding one pretext after another for delaying his return to Hanaford, and trying, while he gave one part of his mind to the methodical performance of his task, to adjust the other to some definite view of the future. But all was darkened and confused by the sense that, between himself and Justine, complete communion of thought was no longer possible. It had, in fact, never existed; there had always been a locked chamber in her mind, and he knew not yet what other secrets might inhabit it.

The shock of finding her gone when he reached home gave a new turn to his feelings. She had made no mystery of her destination, leaving word with the servants that she had gone to town to see Mr. Langhope; and Amherst found a note from her on his study table.

“I feel,” she wrote, “that I ought to see Mr. Langhope myself, and be the first to tell him what must be told. It was like you, dearest, to wish to spare me this, but it would have made me more unhappy; and Mr. Langhope might wish to hear the facts in my own words. I shall come back tomorrow, and after that it will be for you to decide what must be done.”

The brevity and simplicity of the note were characteristic; in moments of high tension Justine was always calm and direct. And it was like her, too, not to make any covert appeal to his sympathy, not to seek to entrap his judgment by caressing words and plaintive allusions. The quiet tone in which she stated her purpose matched the firmness and courage of the act, and for a moment Amherst was shaken by a revulsion of feeling. Her heart was level with his, after all — if she had done wrong she would bear the brunt of it alone. It was so exactly what he himself would have felt and done in such a situation that faith in her flowed back through all the dried channels of his heart. But an instant later the current set the other way. The wretched years of his first marriage had left in him a residue of distrust, a tendency to dissociate every act from its ostensible motive. He had been too profoundly the dupe of his own enthusiasm not to retain this streak of scepticism, and it now moved him to ask if Justine’s sudden departure had not been prompted by some other cause than the one she avowed. Had that alone actuated her, why not have told it to him, and asked his consent to her plan? Why let him leave the house without a hint of her purpose, and slip off by the first train as soon as he was safe at Westmore? Might it not be that she had special reasons for wishing Mr. Langhope to hear her own version first — that there were questions she wished to parry herself, explanations she could trust no one to make for her? The thought plunged Amherst into deeper misery. He knew not how to defend himself against these disintegrating suspicions — he felt only that, once the accord between two minds is broken, it is less easy to restore than the passion between two hearts. He dragged heavily through his solitary evening, and awaited with dread and yet impatience a message announcing his wife’s return.

It would have been easier — far easier — when she left Mr. Langhope’s door, to go straight out into the darkness and let it close in on her for good.

Justine felt herself yielding to the spell of that suggestion as she walked along the lamplit pavement, hardly conscious of the turn her steps were taking. The door of the house which a few weeks before had been virtually hers had closed on her without a question. She had been suffered to go out into the darkness without being asked whither she was going, or under what roof her night would be spent. The contrast between her past and present sounded through the tumult of her thoughts like the evil laughter of temptation. The house at Hanaford, to which she was returning, would look at her with the same alien face — nowhere on earth, at that moment, was a door which would open to her like the door of home.

In her painful self-absorption she followed the side street toward Madison Avenue, and struck southward down that tranquil thoroughfare. There was a physical relief in rapid motion, and she walked on, still hardly aware of her direction, toward the clustered lights of Madison Square. Should she return to Hanaford, she had still several hours to dispose of before the departure of the midnight train; and if she did not return, hours and dates no longer existed for her.

It would be easier — infinitely easier — not to go back. To take up her life with Amherst would, under any circumstances, be painful enough; to take it up under the tacit restriction of her pledge to Mr. Langhope seemed more than human courage could face. As she approached the square she had almost reached the conclusion that such a temporary renewal was beyond her strength — beyond what any standard of duty exacted. The question of an alternative hardly troubled her. She would simply go on living, and find an escape in work and material hardship. It would not be hard for so inconspicuous a person to slip back into the obscure mass of humanity.

She paused a moment on the edge of the square, vaguely seeking a direction for her feet that might permit the working of her thoughts to go on uninterrupted; and as she stood there, her eyes fell on the bench near the corner of Twenty-sixth Street, where she had sat with Amherst on the day of his flight from Lynbrook. He too had dreamed of escaping from insoluble problems into the clear air of hard work and simple duties; and she remembered the words with which she had turned him back. The cases, of course, were not identical, since he had been flying in anger and wounded pride from a situation for which he was in no wise to blame; yet, if even at such a moment she had insisted on charity and forbearance, how could she now show less self-denial than she had exacted of him?

“If you go away for a time, surely it ought to be in such a way that your going does not seem to cast any reflection on Bessy. . . . ” That was how she had put it to him, and how, with the mere change of a name, she must now, for reasons as cogent, put it to herself. It was just as much a part of the course she had planned to return to her husband now, and take up their daily life together, as it would, later on, be her duty to drop out of that life, when her doing so could no longer involve him in the penalty to be paid.

She stood a little while looking at the bench on which they had sat, and giving thanks in her heart for the past strength which was now helping to build up her failing courage: such a patchwork business are our best endeavours, yet so faithfully does each weak upward impulse reach back a hand to the next.

Justine’s explanation of her visit to Mr. Langhope was not wholly satisfying to her husband. She did not conceal from him that the scene had been painful, but she gave him to understand, as briefly as possible, that Mr. Langhope, after his first movement of uncontrollable distress, had seemed able to make allowances for the pressure under which she had acted, and that he had, at any rate, given no sign of intending to let her confession make any change in the relation between the households. If she did not — as Amherst afterward recalled — put all this specifically into words, she contrived to convey it in her manner, in her allusions, above all in her recovered composure. She had the demeanour of one who has gone through a severe test of strength, but come out of it in complete control of the situation. There was something slightly unnatural in this prompt solution of so complicated a difficulty, and it had the effect of making Amherst ask himself what, to produce such a result, must have been the gist of her communication to Mr. Langhope. If the latter had shown any disposition to be cruel, or even unjust, Amherst’s sympathies would have rushed instantly to his wife’s defence; but the fact that there was apparently to be no call on them left his reason free to compare and discriminate, with the final result that the more he pondered on his father-in-law’s attitude the less intelligible it became.

A few days after Justine’s return he was called to New York on business; and before leaving he told her that he should of course take the opportunity of having a talk with Mr. Langhope.

She received the statement with the gentle composure from which she had not departed since her return from town; and he added tentatively, as if to provoke her to a clearer expression of feeling: “I shall not be satisfied, of course, till I see for myself just how he feels — just how much, at bottom, this has affected him — since my own future relation to him will, as I have already told you, depend entirely on his treatment of you.”

She met this without any sign of disturbance. “His treatment of me was very kind,” she said. “But would it not, on your part,” she continued hesitatingly, “be kinder not to touch on the subject so soon again?”

The line deepened between his brows. “Touch on it? I sha’n’t rest till I’ve gone to the bottom of it! Till then, you must understand,” he summed up with decision, “I feel myself only on sufferance here at Westmore.”

“Yes — I understand,” she assented; and as he bent over to kiss her for goodbye a tenuous impenetrable barrier seemed to lie between their lips.

It was Justine’s turn to await with a passionate anxiety her husband’s home-coming; and when, on the third day, he reappeared, her dearly acquired self-control gave way to a tremulous eagerness. This was, after all, the turning-point in their lives: everything depended on how Mr. Langhope had “played up” to his cue; had kept to his side of their bond.

Amherst’s face showed signs of emotional havoc: when feeling once broke out in him it had full play, and she could see that his hour with Mr. Langhope had struck to the roots of life. But the resultant expression was one of invigoration, not defeat; and she gathered at a glance that her partner had not betrayed her. She drew a tragic solace from the success of her achievement; yet it flung her into her husband’s arms with a passion of longing to which, as she instantly felt, he did not as completely respond.

There was still, then, something “between” them: somewhere the mechanism of her scheme had failed, or its action had not produced the result she had counted on.

As soon as they were alone in the study she said, as quietly as she could: “You saw your father-in-law? You talked with him?”

“Yes — I spent the afternoon with him. Cicely sent you her love.”

She coloured at the mention of the child’s name and murmured: “And Mr. Langhope?”

“He is perfectly calm now — perfectly impartial. — This business has made me feel,” Amherst added abruptly, “that I have never been quite fair to him. I never thought him a magnanimous man.”

“He has proved himself so,” Justine murmured, her head bent low over a bit of needlework; and Amherst affirmed energetically: “He has been more than that — generous!”

She looked up at him with a smile. “I am so glad, dear; so glad there is not to be the least shadow between you. . . . ”

“No,” Amherst said, his voice flagging slightly. There was a pause, and then he went on with renewed emphasis: “Of course I made my point clear to him.”

“Your point?”

“That I stand or fall by his judgment of you.”

Oh, if he had but said it more tenderly! But he delivered it with the quiet resolution of a man who contends for an abstract principle of justice, and not for a passion grown into the fibres of his heart!

“You are generous too,” she faltered, her voice trembling a little.

Amherst frowned; and she perceived that any hint, on her part, of recognizing the slightest change in their relations was still like pressure on a painful bruise.

“There is no need for such words between us,” he said impatiently; “and Mr. Langhope’s attitude,” he added, with an effort at a lighter tone, “has made it unnecessary, thank heaven, that we should ever revert to the subject again.”

He turned to his desk as he spoke, and plunged into perusal of the letters that had accumulated in his absence.

There was a temporary excess of work at Westmore, and during the days that followed he threw himself into it with a zeal that showed Justine how eagerly he sought any pretext for avoiding confidential moments. The perception was painful enough, yet not as painful as another discovery that awaited her. She too had her tasks at Westmore: the supervision of the hospital, the day nursery, the mothers’ club, and the various other organizations whereby she and Amherst were trying to put some sort of social unity into the lives of the mill-hands; and when, on the day after his return from New York, she presented herself, as usual, at the Westmore office, where she was in the habit of holding a brief consultation with him before starting on her rounds, she was at once aware of a new tinge of constraint in his manner. It hurt him, then, to see her at Westmore — hurt him more than to live with her, at Hanaford, under Bessy’s roof! For it was there, at the mills, that his real life was led, the life with which Justine had been most identified, the life that had been made possible for both by the magnanimity of that other woman whose presence was now forever between them.

Justine made no sign. She resumed her work as though unconscious of any change; but whereas in the past they had always found pretexts for seeking each other out, to discuss the order of the day’s work, or merely to warm their hearts by a rapid word or two, now each went a separate way, sometimes not meeting till they regained the house at night-fall.

And as the weeks passed she began to understand that, by a strange inversion of probability, the relation between Amherst and herself was to be the means of holding her to her compact with Mr. Langhope — if indeed it were not nearer the truth to say that it had made such a compact unnecessary. Amherst had done his best to take up their life together as though there had been no break in it; but slowly the fact was being forced on her that by remaining with him she was subjecting him to intolerable suffering — was coming to be the personification of the very thoughts and associations from which he struggled to escape. Happily her promptness of action had preserved Westmore to him, and in Westmore she believed that he would in time find a refuge from even the memory of what he was now enduring. But meanwhile her presence kept the thought alive; and, had every other incentive lost its power, this would have been enough to sustain her. Fate had, ironically enough, furnished her with an unanswerable reason for leaving Amherst; the impossibility of their keeping up such a relation as now existed between them would soon become too patent to be denied.

Meanwhile, as summer approached, she knew that external conditions would also call upon her to act. The visible signal for her withdrawal would be Cicely’s next visit to Westmore. The child’s birthday fell in early June; and Amherst, some months previously, had asked that she should be permitted to spend it at Hanaford, and that it should be chosen as the date for the opening of the first model cottages at Hopewood.

It was Justine who had originated the idea of associating Cicely’s anniversaries with some significant moment in the annals of the mill colony; and struck by the happy suggestion, he had at once applied himself to hastening on the work at Hopewood. The eagerness of both Amherst and Justine that Cicely should be identified with the developing life of Westmore had been one of the chief influences in reconciling Mr. Langhope to his son-in-law’s second marriage. Husband and wife had always made it clear that they regarded themselves as the mere trustees of the Westmore revenues, and that Cicely’s name should, as early as possible, be associated with every measure taken for the welfare of the people. But now, as Justine knew, the situation was changed; and Cicely would not be allowed to come to Hanaford until she herself had left it. The manifold threads of divination that she was perpetually throwing out in Amherst’s presence told her, without word or sign on his part, that he also awaited Cicely’s birthday as a determining date in their lives. He spoke confidently, and as a matter of course, of Mr. Langhope’s bringing his grand-daughter at the promised time; but Justine could hear a note of challenge in his voice, as though he felt that Mr. Langhope’s sincerity had not yet been put to the test.

As the time drew nearer it became more difficult for her to decide just how she should take the step she had determined on. She had no material anxiety for the future, for although she did not mean to accept a penny from her husband after she had left him, she knew it would be easy for her to take up her nursing again; and she knew also that her hospital connections would enable her to find work in a part of the country far enough distant to remove her entirely from his life. But she had not yet been able to invent a reason for leaving that should be convincing enough to satisfy him, without directing his suspicions to the truth. As she revolved the question she suddenly recalled an exclamation of Amherst’s — a word spoken as they entered Mr. Langhope’s door, on the fatal afternoon when she had found Wyant’s letter awaiting her.

“There’s nothing you can’t make people believe, you little Jesuit!”

She had laughed in pure joy at his praise of her; for every bantering phrase had then been a caress. But now the words returned with a sinister meaning. She knew they were true as far as Amherst was concerned: in the arts of casuistry and equivocation a child could have outmatched him, and she had only to exert her will to dupe him as deeply as she pleased. Well! the task was odious, but it was needful: it was the bitterest part of her expiation that she must deceive him once more to save him from the results of her former deception. This decision once reached, every nerve in her became alert for an opportunity to do the thing and have it over; so that, whenever they were alone together, she was in an attitude of perpetual tension, her whole mind drawn up for its final spring.

The decisive word came, one evening toward the end of May, in the form of an allusion on Amherst’s part to Cicely’s approaching visit. Husband and wife were seated in the drawing-room after dinner, he with a book in hand, she bending, as usual, over the needlework which served at once as a pretext for lowered eyes, and as a means of disguising her fixed preoccupation.

“Have you worked out a plan?” he asked, laying down his book. “It occurred to me that it would be rather a good idea if we began with a sort of festivity for the kids at the day nursery. You could take Cicely there early, and I could bring out Mr. Langhope after luncheon. The whole performance would probably tire him too much.”

Justine listened with suspended thread. “Yes — that seems a good plan.”

“Will you see about the details, then? You know it’s only a week off.”

“Yes, I know.” She hesitated, and then took the spring. “I ought to tell you John — that I— I think I may not be here. . . . ”

He raised his head abruptly, and she saw the blood mount under his fair skin. “Not be here?” he exclaimed.

She met his look as steadily as she could. “I think of going away for awhile.”

“Going away? Where? What is the matter — are you not well?”

There was her pretext — he had found it for her! Why should she not simply plead ill-health? Afterward she would find a way of elaborating the details and making them plausible. But suddenly, as she was about to speak, there came to her the feeling which, up to one fatal moment in their lives, had always ruled their intercourse — the feeling that there must be truth, and absolute truth, between them. Absolute, indeed, it could never be again, since he must never know of the condition exacted by Mr. Langhope; but that, at the moment, seemed almost a secondary motive compared to the deeper influences that were inexorably forcing them apart. At any rate, she would trump up no trivial excuse for the step she had resolved on; there should be truth, if not the whole truth, in this last decisive hour between them.

“Yes; I am quite well — at least my body is,” she said quietly. “But I am tired, perhaps; my mind has been going round too long in the same circle.” She paused for a brief space, and then, raising her head, and looking him straight in the eyes: “Has it not been so with you?” she asked.

The question seemed to startle Amherst. He rose from his chair and took a few steps toward the hearth, where a small fire was crumbling into embers. He turned his back to it, resting an arm on the mantel-shelf; then he said, in a somewhat unsteady tone: “I thought we had agreed not to speak of all that again.”

Justine shook her head with a fugitive half-smile. “I made no such agreement. And besides, what is the use, when we can always hear each other’s thoughts speak, and they speak of nothing else?”

Amherst’s brows darkened. “It is not so with mine,” he began; but she raised her hand with a silencing gesture.

“I know you have tried your best that it should not be so; and perhaps you have succeeded better than I. But I am tired, horribly tired — I want to get away from everything!”

She saw a look of pain in his eyes. He continued to lean against the mantel-shelf, his head slightly lowered, his unseeing gaze fixed on a remote scroll in the pattern of the carpet; then he said in a low tone: “I can only repeat again what I have said before — that I understand why you did what you did.”

“Thank you,” she answered, in the same tone.

There was another pause, for she could not trust herself to go on speaking; and presently he asked, with a tinge of bitterness in his voice: “That does not satisfy you?”

She hesitated. “It satisfies me as much as it does you — and no more,” she replied at length.

He looked up hastily. “What do you mean?”

“Just what I say. We can neither of us go on living on that understanding just at present.” She rose as she spoke, and crossed over to the hearth. “I want to go back to my nursing — to go out to Michigan, to a town where I spent a few months the year before I first came to Hanaford. I have friends there, and can get work easily. And you can tell people that I was ill and needed a change.”

It had been easier to say than she had imagined, and her voice held its clear note till the end; but when she had ceased, the whole room began to reverberate with her words, and through the clashing they made in her brain she felt a sudden uncontrollable longing that they should provoke in him a cry of protest, of resistance. Oh, if he refused to let her go — if he caught her to him, and defied the world to part them — what then of her pledge to Mr. Langhope, what then of her resolve to pay the penalty alone?

But in the space of a heart-beat she knew that peril — that longed-for peril! — was past. Her husband had remained silent — he neither moved toward her nor looked at her; and she felt in every slackening nerve that in the end he would let her go.

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