Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

IV

JOHN AMHERST was no one-sided idealist. He felt keenly the growing complexity of the relation between employer and worker, the seeming hopelessness of permanently harmonizing their claims, the recurring necessity of fresh compromises and adjustments. He hated rant, demagogy, the rash formulating of emotional theories; and his contempt for bad logic and subjective judgments led him to regard with distrust the panaceas offered for the cure of economic evils. But his heart ached for the bitter throes with which the human machine moves on. He felt the menace of industrial conditions when viewed collectively, their poignancy when studied in the individual lives of the toilers among whom his lot was cast; and clearly as he saw the need of a philosophic survey of the question, he was sure that only through sympathy with its personal, human side could a solution be reached. The disappearance of the old familiar contact between master and man seemed to him one of the great wrongs of the new industrial situation. That the breach must be farther widened by the ultimate substitution of the stock-company for the individual employer — a fact obvious to any student of economic tendencies — presented to Amherst’s mind one of the most painful problems in the scheme of social readjustment. But it was characteristic of him to dwell rather on the removal of immediate difficulties than in the contemplation of those to come, and while the individual employer was still to be reckoned with, the main thing was to bring him closer to his workers. Till he entered personally into their hardships and aspirations — till he learned what they wanted and why they wanted it — Amherst believed that no mere law-making, however enlightened, could create a wholesome relation between the two.

This feeling was uppermost as he sat with Mrs. Westmore in the carriage which was carrying them to the mills. He had meant to take the trolley back to Westmore, but at a murmured word from Mr. Tredegar Bessy had offered him a seat at her side, leaving others to follow. This culmination of his hopes — the unlooked-for chance of a half-hour alone with her — left Amherst oppressed with the swiftness of the minutes. He had so much to say — so much to prepare her for — yet how begin, while he was in utter ignorance of her character and her point of view, and while her lovely nearness left him so little chance of perceiving anything except itself?

But he was not often the victim of his sensations, and presently there emerged, out of the very consciousness of her grace and her completeness, a clearer sense of the conditions which, in a measure, had gone to produce them. Her dress could not have hung in such subtle folds, her white chin have nestled in such rich depths of fur, the pearls in her ears have given back the light from such pure curves, if thin shoulders in shapeless gingham had not bent, day in, day out, above the bobbins and carders, and weary ears throbbed even at night with the tumult of the looms. Amherst, however, felt no sensational resentment at the contrast. He had lived too much with ugliness and want not to believe in human nature’s abiding need of their opposite. He was glad there was room for such beauty in the world, and sure that its purpose was an ameliorating one, if only it could be used as a beautiful spirit would use it.

The carriage had turned into one of the nondescript thoroughfares, half incipient street, half decaying lane, which dismally linked the mill-village to Hanaford. Bessy looked out on the ruts, the hoardings, the starved trees dangling their palsied leaves in the radiant October light; then she sighed: “What a good day for a gallop!”

Amherst felt a momentary chill, but the naturalness of the exclamation disarmed him, and the words called up thrilling memories of his own college days, when he had ridden his grandfather’s horses in the famous hunting valley not a hundred miles from Hanaford.

Bessy met his smile with a glow of understanding. “You like riding too, I’m sure?”

“I used to; but I haven’t been in the saddle for years. Factory managers don’t keep hunters,” he said laughing.

Her murmur of embarrassment showed that she took this as an apologetic allusion to his reduced condition, and in his haste to correct this impression he added: “If I regretted anything in my other life, it would certainly be a gallop on a day like this; but I chose my trade deliberately, and I’ve never been sorry for my choice.”

He had hardly spoken when he felt the inappropriateness of this avowal; but her prompt response showed him, a moment later, that it was, after all, the straightest way to his end.

“You find the work interesting? I’m sure it must be. You’ll think me very ignorant — my husband and I came here so seldom . . . I feel as if I ought to know so much more about it,” she explained.

At last the note for which he waited had been struck. “Won’t you try to — now you’re here? There’s so much worth knowing,” he broke out impetuously.

Mrs. Westmore coloured, but rather with surprise than displeasure. “I’m very stupid — I’ve no head for business — but I will try to,” she said.

“It’s not business that I mean; it’s the personal relation — just the thing the business point of view leaves out. Financially, I don’t suppose your mills could be better run; but there are over seven hundred women working in them, and there’s so much to be done, just for them and their children.”

He caught a faint hint of withdrawal in her tone. “I have always understood that Mr. Truscomb did everything —— ”

Amherst flushed; but he was beyond caring for the personal rebuff. “Do you leave it to your little girl’s nurses to do everything for her?” he asked.

Her surprise seemed about to verge on annoyance: he saw the preliminary ruffling of the woman who is put to the trouble of defending her dignity. “Really, I don’t see — ” she began with distant politeness; then her face changed and melted, and again her blood spoke for her before her lips.

“I am glad you told me that, Mr. Amherst. Of course I want to do whatever I can. I should like you to point out everything —— ”

Amherst’s resolve had been taken while she spoke. He would point out everything, would stretch his opportunity to its limit. All thoughts of personal prudence were flung to the winds — her blush and tone had routed the waiting policy. He would declare war on Truscomb at once, and take the chance of dismissal. At least, before he went he would have brought this exquisite creature face to face with the wrongs from which her luxuries were drawn, and set in motion the regenerating impulses of indignation and pity. He did not stop to weigh the permanent advantage of this course. His only feeling was that the chance would never again be given him — that if he let her go away, back to her usual life, with eyes unopened and heart untouched, there would be no hope of her ever returning. It was far better that he should leave for good, and that she should come back, as come back she must, more and more often, if once she could be made to feel the crying need of her presence.

But where was he to begin? How give her even a glimpse of the packed and intricate situation?

“Mrs. Westmore,” he said, “there’s no time to say much now, but before we get to the mills I want to ask you a favour. If, as you go through them, you see anything that seems to need explaining, will you let me come and tell you about it tonight? I say tonight,” he added, meeting her look of enquiry, “because later — tomorrow even — I might not have the chance. There are some things — a good many — in the management of the mills that Mr. Truscomb doesn’t see as I do. I don’t mean business questions: wages and dividends and so on — those are out of my province. I speak merely in the line of my own work — my care of the hands, and what I believe they need and don’t get under the present system. Naturally, if Mr. Truscomb were well, I shouldn’t have had this chance of putting the case to you; but since it’s come my way, I must seize it and take the consequences.”

Even as he spoke, by a swift reaction of thought, those consequences rose before him in all their seriousness. It was not only, or chiefly, that he feared to lose his place; though he knew his mother had not spoken lightly in instancing the case of the foreman whom Truscomb, to gratify a personal spite, had for months kept out of a job in his trade. And there were special reasons why Amherst should heed her warning. In adopting a manual trade, instead of one of the gentlemanly professions which the men of her family had always followed, he had not only disappointed her hopes, and to a great extent thrown away the benefits of the education she had pinched herself to give him, but had disturbed all the habits of her life by removing her from her normal surroundings to the depressing exile of a factory-settlement. However much he blamed himself for exacting this sacrifice, it had been made so cheerfully that the consciousness of it never clouded his life with his mother; but her self-effacement made him the more alive to his own obligations, and having placed her in a difficult situation he had always been careful not to increase its difficulties by any imprudence in his conduct toward his employers. Yet, grave as these considerations were, they were really less potent than his personal desire to remain at Westmore. Lightly as he had just resolved to risk the chance of dismissal, all his future was bound up in the hope of retaining his place. His heart was in the work at Westmore, and the fear of not being able to get other employment was a small factor in his intense desire to keep his post. What he really wanted was to speak out, and yet escape the consequences: by some miraculous reversal of probability to retain his position and yet effect Truscomb’s removal. The idea was so fantastic that he felt it merely as a quickening of all his activities, a tremendous pressure of will along undetermined lines. He had no wish to take the manager’s place; but his dream was to see Truscomb superseded by a man of the new school, in sympathy with the awakening social movement — a man sufficiently practical to “run” the mills successfully, yet imaginative enough to regard that task as the least of his duties. He saw the promise of such a man in Louis Duplain, the overseer who boarded with Mrs. Amherst: a young fellow of Alsatian extraction, a mill-hand from childhood, who had worked at his trade in Europe as well as in America, and who united with more manual skill, and a greater nearness to the workman’s standpoint, all Amherst’s enthusiasm for the experiments in social betterment that were making in some of the English and continental factories. His strongest wish was to see such a man as Duplain in control at Westmore before he himself turned to the larger work which he had begun to see before him as the sequel to his factory-training.

All these thoughts swept through him in the instant’s pause before Mrs. Westmore, responding to his last appeal, said with a graceful eagerness: “Yes, you must come tonight. I want to hear all you can tell me — and if there is anything wrong you must show me how I can make it better.”

“I’ll show her, and Truscomb shan’t turn me out for it,” was the vow he passionately registered as the carriage drew up at the office-door of the main building.

How this impossible result was to be achieved he had no farther time to consider, for in another moment the rest of the party had entered the factory with them, and speech was followed up in the roar of the machinery.

Amherst’s zeal for his cause was always quickened by the sight of the mills in action. He loved the work itself as much as he hated the conditions under which it was done; and he longed to see on the operatives’ faces something of the ardour that lit up his own when he entered the work-rooms. It was this passion for machinery that at school had turned him from his books, at college had drawn him to the courses least in the line of his destined profession; and it always seized on him afresh when he was face to face with the monstrous energies of the mills. It was not only the sense of power that thrilled him — he felt a beauty in the ordered activity of the whole intricate organism, in the rhythm of dancing bobbins and revolving cards, the swift continuous outpour of doublers and ribbon-laps, the steady ripple of the long ply-frames, the terrible gnashing play of the looms — all these varying subordinate motions, gathered up into the throb of the great engines which fed the giant’s arteries, and were in turn ruled by the invisible action of quick thought and obedient hands, always produced in Amherst a responsive rush of life.

He knew this sensation was too specialized to affect his companions; but he expected Mrs. Westmore to be all the more alive to the other side — the dark side of monotonous human toil, of the banquet of flesh and blood and brain perpetually served up to the monster whose insatiable jaws the looms so grimly typified. Truscomb, as he had told her, was a good manager from the profit-taking standpoint. Since it was profitable to keep the machinery in order, he maintained throughout the factory a high standard of mechanical supervision, except where one or two favoured overseers — for Truscomb was given to favoritism — shirked the duties of their departments. But it was of the essence of Truscomb’s policy — and not the least of the qualities which made him a “paying” manager — that he saved money scrupulously where its outlay would not have resulted in larger earnings. To keep the floors scrubbed, the cotton-dust swept up, the rooms freshly whitewashed and well-ventilated, far from adding the smallest fraction to the quarterly dividends, would have deducted from them the slight cost of this additional labour; and Truscomb therefore economized on scrubbers, sweepers and window-washers, and on all expenses connected with improved ventilation and other hygienic precautions. Though the whole factory was over-crowded, the newest buildings were more carefully planned, and had the usual sanitary improvements; but the old mills had been left in their original state, and even those most recently built were fast lapsing into squalor. It was no wonder, therefore, that workers imprisoned within such walls should reflect their long hours of deadening toil in dull eyes and anæmic skins, and in the dreary lassitude with which they bent to their tasks.

Surely, Amherst argued, Mrs. Westmore must feel this; must feel it all the more keenly, coming from an atmosphere so different, from a life where, as he instinctively divined, all was in harmony with her own graceful person. But a deep disappointment awaited him. He was still under the spell of their last moments in the carriage, when her face and voice had promised so much, when she had seemed so deeply, if vaguely, stirred by his appeal. But as they passed from one resounding room to the other — from the dull throb of the carding-room, the groan of the ply-frames, the long steady pound of the slashers, back to the angry shriek of the fierce unappeasable looms — the light faded from her eyes and she looked merely bewildered and stunned.

Amherst, hardened to the din of the factory, could not measure its effect on nerves accustomed to the subdued sounds and spacious stillnesses which are the last refinement of luxury. Habit had made him unconscious of that malicious multiplication and subdivision of noise that kept every point of consciousness vibrating to a different note, so that while one set of nerves was torn as with pincers by the dominant scream of the looms, others were thrilled with a separate pain by the ceaseless accompaniment of drumming, hissing, grating and crashing that shook the great building. Amherst felt this tumult only as part of the atmosphere of the mills; and to ears trained like his own he could make his voice heard without difficulty. But his attempts at speech were unintelligible to Mrs. Westmore and her companions, and after vainly trying to communicate with him by signs they hurried on as if to escape as quickly as possible from the pursuing whirlwind.

Amherst could not allow for the depressing effect of this enforced silence. He did not see that if Bessy could have questioned him the currents of sympathy might have remained open between them, whereas, compelled to walk in silence through interminable ranks of meaningless machines, to which the human workers seemed mere automatic appendages, she lost all perception of what the scene meant. He had forgotten, too, that the swift apprehension of suffering in others is as much the result of training as the immediate perception of beauty. Both perceptions may be inborn, but if they are not they can be developed only through the discipline of experience.

“That girl in the hospital would have seen it all,” he reflected, as the vision of Miss Brent’s small incisive profile rose before him; but the next moment he caught the light on Mrs. Westmore’s hair, as she bent above a card, and the paler image faded like a late moon in the sunrise.

Meanwhile Mrs. Ansell, seeing that the detailed inspection of the buildings was as trying to Mr. Langhope’s lameness as to his daughter’s nerves, had proposed to turn back with him and drive to Mrs. Amherst’s, where he might leave her to call while the others were completing their rounds. It was one of Mrs. Ansell’s gifts to detect the first symptoms of ennui in her companions, and produce a remedy as patly as old ladies whisk out a scent-bottle or a cough-lozenge; and Mr. Langhope’s look of relief showed the timeliness of her suggestion.

Amherst was too preoccupied to wonder how his mother would take this visit; but he welcomed Mr. Langhope’s departure, hoping that the withdrawal of his ironic smile would leave his daughter open to gentler influences. Mr. Tredegar, meanwhile, was projecting his dry glance over the scene, trying to converse by signs with the overseers of the different rooms, and pausing now and then to contemplate, not so much the workers themselves as the special tasks which engaged them.

How these spectators of the party’s progress were affected by Mrs. Westmore’s appearance, even Amherst, for all his sympathy with their views, could not detect. They knew that she was the new owner, that a disproportionate amount of the result of their toil would in future pass through her hands, spread carpets for her steps, and hang a setting of beauty about her eyes; but the knowledge seemed to produce no special interest in her personality. A change of employer was not likely to make any change in their lot: their welfare would probably continue to depend on Truscomb’s favour. The men hardly raised their heads as Mrs. Westmore passed; the women stared, but with curiosity rather than interest; and Amherst could not tell whether their sullenness reacted on Mrs. Westmore, or whether they were unconsciously chilled by her indifference. The result was the same: the distance between them seemed to increase instead of diminishing; and he smiled ironically to think of the form his appeal had taken — “If you see anything that seems to need explaining.” Why, she saw nothing — nothing but the greasy floor under her feet, the cotton-dust in her eyes, the dizzy incomprehensible whirring of innumerable belts and wheels! Once out of it all, she would make haste to forget the dreary scene without pausing to ask for any explanation of its dreariness.

In the intensity of his disappointment he sought a pretext to cut short the tour of the buildings, that he might remove his eyes from the face he had so vainly watched for any sign of awakening. And then, as he despaired of it, the change came.

They had entered the principal carding-room, and were half-way down its long central passage, when Mr. Tredegar, who led the procession, paused before one of the cards.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to a ragged strip of black cloth tied conspicuously to the frame of the card.

The overseer of the room, a florid young man with dissipated eyes, who, at Amherst’s signal, had attached himself to the party, stopped short and turned a furious glance on the surrounding operatives.

“What in hell . . .? It’s the first I seen of it,” he exclaimed, making an ineffectual attempt to snatch the mourning emblem from its place.

At the same instant the midday whistle boomed through the building, and at the signal the machinery stopped, and silence fell on the mills. The more distant workers at once left their posts to catch up the hats and coats heaped untidily in the corners; but those nearer by, attracted by the commotion around the card, stood spell-bound, fixing the visitors with a dull stare.

Amherst had reddened to the roots of his hair. He knew in a flash what the token signified, and the sight stirred his pity; but it also jarred on his strong sense of discipline, and he turned sternly to the operatives.

“What does this mean?”

There was a short silence; then one of the hands, a thin bent man with mystic eyes, raised his head and spoke.

“We done that for Dillon,” he said.

Amherst’s glance swept the crowded faces. “But Dillon was not killed,” he exclaimed, while the overseer, drawing out his pen-knife, ripped off the cloth and tossed it contemptuously into a heap of cotton-refuse at his feet.

“Might better ha’ been,” came from another hand; and a deep “That’s so” of corroboration ran through the knot of workers.

Amherst felt a touch on his arm, and met Mrs. Westmore’s eyes. “What has happened? What do they mean?” she asked in a startled voice.

“There was an accident here two days ago: a man got caught in the card behind him, and his right hand was badly crushed.”

Mr. Tredegar intervened with his dry note of command. “How serious is the accident? How did it happen?” he enquired.

“Through the man’s own carelessness — ask the manager,” the overseer interposed before Amherst could answer.

A deep murmur of dissent ran through the crowd, but Amherst, without noticing the overseer’s reply, said to Mr. Tredegar: “He’s at the Hope Hospital. He will lose his hand, and probably the whole arm.”

He had not meant to add this last phrase. However strongly his sympathies were aroused, it was against his rule, at such a time, to say anything which might inflame the quick passions of the workers: he had meant to make light of the accident, and dismiss the operatives with a sharp word of reproof. But Mrs. Westmore’s face was close to his: he saw the pity in her eyes, and feared, if he checked its expression, that he might never again have the chance of calling it forth.

“His right arm? How terrible! But then he will never be able to work again!” she exclaimed, in all the horror of a first confrontation with the inexorable fate of the poor.

Her eyes turned from Amherst and rested on the faces pressing about her. There were many women’s faces among them — the faces of fagged middle-age, and of sallow sedentary girlhood. For the first time Mrs. Westmore seemed to feel the bond of blood between herself and these dim creatures of the underworld: as Amherst watched her the lovely miracle was wrought. Her pallour gave way to a quick rush of colour, her eyes widened like a frightened child’s, and two tears rose and rolled slowly down her face.

“Oh, why wasn’t I told? Is he married? Has he children? What does it matter whose fault it was?” she cried, her questions pouring out disconnectedly on a wave of anger and compassion.

“It warn’t his fault. . . . The cards are too close. . . . It’ll happen again. . . . He’s got three kids at home,” broke from the operatives; and suddenly a voice exclaimed “Here’s his wife now,” and the crowd divided to make way for Mrs. Dillon, who, passing through the farther end of the room, had been waylaid and dragged toward the group.

She hung back, shrinking from the murderous machine, which she beheld for the first time since her husband’s accident; then she saw Amherst, guessed the identity of the lady at his side, and flushed up to her haggard forehead. Mrs. Dillon had been good-looking in her earlier youth, and sufficient prettiness lingered in her hollow-cheeked face to show how much more had been sacrificed to sickness and unwholesome toil.

“Oh, ma’am, ma’am, it warn’t Jim’s fault — there ain’t a steadier man living. The cards is too crowded,” she sobbed out.

Some of the other women began to cry: a wave of sympathy ran through the circle, and Mrs. Westmore moved forward with an answering exclamation. “You poor creature . . . you poor creature. . . . ” She opened her arms to Mrs. Dillon, and the scrubber’s sobs were buried on her employer’s breast.

“I will go to the hospital — I will come and see you — I will see that everything is done,” Bessy reiterated. “But why are you here? How is it that you have had to leave your children?” She freed herself to turn a reproachful glance on Amherst. “You don’t mean to tell me that, at such a time, you keep the poor woman at work?”

“Mrs. Dillon has not been working here lately,” Amherst answered. “The manager took her back to-day at her own request, that she might earn something while her husband was in hospital.”

Mrs. Westmore’s eyes shone indignantly. “Earn something? But surely —— ”

She met a silencing look from Mr. Tredegar, who had stepped between Mrs. Dillon and herself.

“My dear child, no one doubts — none of these good people doubt — that you will look into the case, and do all you can to alleviate it; but let me suggest that this is hardly the place —— ”

She turned from him with an appealing glance at Amherst.

“I think,” the latter said, as their eyes met, “that you had better let me dismiss the hands: they have only an hour at midday.”

She signed her assent, and he turned to the operatives and said quietly: “You have heard Mrs. Westmore’s promise; now take yourselves off, and give her a clear way to the stairs.”

They dropped back, and Mr. Tredegar drew Bessy’s arm through his; but as he began to move away she turned and laid her hand on Mrs. Dillon’s shoulder.

“You must not stay here — you must go back to the children. I will make it right with Mr. Truscomb,” she said in a reassuring whisper; then, through her tears, she smiled a farewell at the lingering knot of operatives, and followed her companions to the door.

In silence they descended the many stairs and crossed the shabby unfenced grass-plot between the mills and the manager’s office. It was not till they reached the carriage that Mrs. Westmore spoke.

“But Maria is waiting for us — we must call for her!” she said, rousing herself; and as Amherst opened the carriage-door she added: “You will show us the way? You will drive with us?”

During the drive Bessy remained silent, as if re-absorbed in the distress of the scene she had just witnessed; and Amherst found himself automatically answering Mr. Tredegar’s questions, while his own mind had no room for anything but the sense of her tremulous lips and of her eyes enlarged by tears. He had been too much engrossed in the momentous issues of her visit to the mills to remember that she had promised to call at his mother’s for Mrs. Ansell; but now that they were on their way thither he found himself wishing that the visit might have been avoided. He was too proud of his mother to feel any doubt of the impression she would produce; but what would Mrs. Westmore think of their way of living, of the cheap jauntiness of the cottage, and the smell of cooking penetrating all its thin partitions? Duplain, too, would be coming in for dinner; and Amherst, in spite of his liking for the young overseer, became conscious of a rather overbearing freedom in his manner, the kind of misplaced ease which the new-made American affects as the readiest sign of equality. All these trifles, usually non-existent or supremely indifferent to Amherst, now assumed a sudden importance, behind which he detected the uneasy desire that Mrs. Westmore should not regard him as less of her own class than his connections and his bringing-up entitled him to be thought. In a flash he saw what he had forfeited by his choice of a calling — equal contact with the little circle of people who gave life its crowning grace and facility; and the next moment he was blushing at this reversal of his standards, and wondering, almost contemptuously, what could be the nature of the woman whose mere presence could produce such a change.

But there was no struggling against her influence; and as, the night before, he had looked at Westmore with the nurse’s eyes, so he now found himself seeing his house as it must appear to Mrs. Westmore. He noticed the shabby yellow paint of the palings, the neglected garden of their neighbour, the week’s wash flaunting itself indecently through the denuded shrubs about the kitchen porch; and as he admitted his companions to the narrow passage he was assailed by the expected whiff of “boiled dinner,” with which the steam of wash-tubs was intimately mingled.

Duplain was in the passage; he had just come out of the kitchen, and the fact that he had been washing his hands in the sink was made evident by his rolled-back shirt-sleeves, and by the shiny redness of the knuckles he was running through his stiff black hair.

“Hallo, John,” he said, in his aggressive voice, which rose abruptly at sight of Amherst’s companions; and at the same moment the frowsy maid-of-all-work, crimson from stooping over the kitchen stove, thrust her head out to call after him: “See here, Mr. Duplain, don’t you leave your cravat laying round in my dough.”

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