Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XL

MR. LANGHOPE, tossing down a note on Mrs. Ansell’s drawing-room table, commanded imperiously: “Read that!”

She set aside her tea-cup, and looked up, not at the note, but into his face, which was crossed by one of the waves of heat and tremulousness that she was beginning to fear for him. Mr. Langhope had changed greatly in the last three months; and as he stood there in the clear light of the June afternoon it came to her that he had at last suffered the sudden collapse which is the penalty of youth preserved beyond its time.

“What is it?” she asked, still watching him as she put out her hand for the letter.

“Amherst writes to remind me of my promise to take Cicely to Hanaford next week, for her birthday.”

“Well — it was a promise, wasn’t it?” she rejoined, running her eyes over the page.

“A promise — yes; but made before. . . . Read the note — you’ll see there’s no reference to his wife. For all I know, she’ll be there to receive us.”

“But that was a promise too.”

“That neither Cicely nor I should ever set eyes on her? Yes. But why should she keep it? I was a fool that day — she fooled me as she’s fooled us all! But you saw through it from the beginning — you said at once that she’d never leave him.”

Mrs. Ansell reflected. “I said that before I knew all the circumstances. Now I think differently.”

“You think she still means to go?”

She handed the letter back to him. “I think this is to tell you so.”

“This?” He groped for his glasses, dubiously scanning the letter again.

“Yes. And what’s more, if you refuse to go she’ll have every right to break her side of the agreement.”

Mr. Langhope sank into a chair, steadying himself painfully with his stick. “Upon my soul, I sometimes think you’re on her side!” he ejaculated.

“No — but I like fair play,” she returned, measuring his tea carefully into his favourite little porcelain tea-pot.

“Fair play?”

“She’s offering to do her part. It’s for you to do yours now — to take Cicely to Hanaford.”

“If I find her there, I never cross Amherst’s threshold again!”

Mrs. Ansell, without answering, rose and put his tea-cup on the slender-legged table at his elbow; then, before returning to her seat, she found the enamelled match-box and laid it by the cup. It was becoming difficult for Mr. Langhope to guide his movements about her small encumbered room; and he had always liked being waited on.

Mrs. Ansell’s prognostication proved correct. When Mr. Langhope and Cicely arrived at Hanaford they found Amherst alone to receive them. He explained briefly that his wife had been unwell, and had gone to seek rest and change at the house of an old friend in the west. Mr. Langhope expressed a decent amount of regret, and the subject was dropped as if by common consent. Cicely, however, was not so easily silenced. Poor Bessy’s uncertain fits of tenderness had produced more bewilderment than pleasure in her sober-minded child; but the little girl’s feelings and perceptions had developed rapidly in the equable atmosphere of her step-mother’s affection. Cicely had reached the age when children put their questions with as much ingenuity as persistence, and both Mr. Langhope and Amherst longed for Mrs. Ansell’s aid in parrying her incessant interrogations as to the cause and length of Justine’s absence, what she had said before going, and what promise she had made about coming back. But Mrs. Ansell had not come to Hanaford. Though it had become a matter of habit to include her in the family pilgrimages to the mills she had firmly maintained the plea of more urgent engagements; and the two men, with only Cicely between them, had spent the long days and longer evenings in unaccustomed and unmitigated propinquity.

Mr. Langhope, before leaving, thought it proper to touch tentatively on his promise of giving Cicely to Amherst for the summer; but to his surprise the latter, after a moment of hesitation, replied that he should probably go to Europe for two or three months.

“To Europe? Alone?” escaped from Mr. Langhope before he had time to weigh his words.

Amherst frowned slightly. “I have been made a delegate to the Berne conference on the housing of factory operatives,” he said at length, without making a direct reply to the question; “and if there is nothing to keep me at Westmore, I shall probably go out in July.” He waited a moment, and then added: “My wife has decided to spend the summer in Michigan.”

Mr. Langhope’s answer was a vague murmur of assent, and Amherst turned the talk to other matters.

Mr. Langhope returned to town with distinct views on the situation at Hanaford.

“Poor devil — I’m sorry for him: he can hardly speak of her,” he broke out at once to Mrs. Ansell, in the course of their first confidential hour together.

“Because he cares too much — he’s too unhappy?”

“Because he loathes her!” Mr. Langhope brought out with emphasis.

Mrs. Ansell drew a deep sigh which made him add accusingly: “I believe you’re actually sorry!”

“Sorry?” She raised her eye-brows with a slight smile. “Should one not always be sorry to know there’s a little less love and a little more hate in the world?”

“You’ll be asking me not to hate her next!”

She still continued to smile on him. “It’s the haters, not the hated, I’m sorry for,” she said at length; and he flung back impatiently: “Oh, don’t let’s talk of her. I sometimes feel she takes up more place in our lives than when she was with us!”

Amherst went to the Berne conference in July, and spent six weeks afterward in rapid visits to various industrial centres and model factory villages. During his previous European pilgrimages his interest had by no means been restricted to sociological questions: the appeal of an old civilization, reaching him through its innumerable forms of tradition and beauty, had roused that side of his imagination which his work at home left untouched. But upon his present state of deep moral commotion the spells of art and history were powerless to work. The foundations of his life had been shaken, and the fair exterior of the world was as vacant as a maniac’s face. He could only take refuge in his special task, barricading himself against every expression of beauty and poetry as so many poignant reminders of a phase of life that he was vainly trying to cast off and forget.

Even his work had been embittered to him, thrust out of its place in the ordered scheme of things. It had cost him a hard struggle to hold fast to his main purpose, to convince himself that his real duty lay, not in renouncing the Westmore money and its obligations, but in carrying out his projected task as if nothing had occurred to affect his personal relation to it. The mere fact that such a renunciation would have been a deliberate moral suicide, a severing once for all of every artery of action, made it take on, at first, the semblance of an obligation, a sort of higher duty to the abstract conception of what he owed himself. But Justine had not erred in her forecast. Once she had passed out of his life, it was easier for him to return to a dispassionate view of his situation, to see, and boldly confess to himself that he saw, the still higher duty of sticking to his task, instead of sacrificing it to any ideal of personal disinterestedness. It was this gradual process of adjustment that saved him from the desolating scepticism which falls on the active man when the sources of his activity are tainted. Having accepted his fate, having consented to see in himself merely the necessary agent of a good to be done, he could escape from self-questioning only by shutting himself up in the practical exigencies of his work, closing his eyes and his thoughts to everything which had formerly related it to a wider world, had given meaning and beauty to life as a whole.

The return from Europe, and the taking up of the daily routine at Hanaford, were the most difficult phases in this process of moral adaptation.

Justine’s departure had at first brought relief. He had been too sincere with himself to oppose her wish to leave Hanaford for a time, since he believed that, for her as well as for himself, a temporary separation would be less painful than a continuance of their actual relation. But as the weeks passed into months he found he was no nearer to a clear view of his own case: the future was still dark and enigmatic. Justine’s desire to leave him had revived his unformulated distrust of her. What could it mean but that there were thoughts within her which could not be at rest in his presence? He had given her every proof of his wish to forget the past, and Mr. Langhope had behaved with unequalled magnanimity. Yet Justine’s unhappiness was evident: she could not conceal her longing to escape from the conditions her act had created. Was it because, in reality, she was conscious of other motives than the one she acknowledged? She had insisted, almost unfeelingly as it might have seemed, on the abstract rightness of what she had done, on the fact that, ideally speaking, her act could not be made less right, less justifiable, by the special accidental consequences that had flowed from it. Because these consequences had caught her in a web of tragic fatality she would not be guilty of the weakness of tracing back the disaster to any intrinsic error in her original motive. Why, then, if this was her real, her proud attitude toward the past — and since those about her believed in her sincerity, and accepted her justification as valid from her point of view if not from theirs — why had she not been able to maintain her posture, to carry on life on the terms she had exacted from others?

A special circumstance contributed to this feeling of distrust; the fact, namely, that Justine, a week after her departure from Hanaford, had written to say that she could not, from that moment till her return, consent to accept any money from Amherst. As her manner was, she put her reasons clearly and soberly, without evasion or ambiguity.

“Since you and I,” she wrote, “have always agreed in regarding the Westmore money as a kind of wage for our services at the mills, I cannot be satisfied to go on drawing that wage while I am unable to do any work in return. I am sure you must feel as I do about this; and you need have no anxiety as to the practical side of the question, since I have enough to live on in some savings from my hospital days, which were invested for me two years ago by Harry Dressel, and are beginning to bring in a small return. This being the case, I feel I can afford to interpret in any way I choose the terms of the bargain between myself and Westmore.”

On reading this, Amherst’s mind had gone through the strange dual process which now marked all his judgments of his wife. At first he had fancied he understood her, and had felt that he should have done as she did; then the usual reaction of distrust set in, and he asked himself why she, who had so little of the conventional attitude toward money, should now develop this unexpected susceptibility. And so the old question presented itself in another shape: if she had nothing to reproach herself for, why was it intolerable to her to live on Bessy’s money? The fact that she was doing no actual service at Westmore did not account for her scruples — she would have been the last person to think that a sick servant should be docked of his pay. Her reluctance could come only from that hidden cause of compunction which had prompted her departure, and which now forced her to sever even the merely material links between herself and her past.

Amherst, on his return to Hanaford, had tried to find in these considerations a reason for his deep unrest. It was his wife’s course which still cast a torturing doubt on what he had braced his will to accept and put behind him. And he now told himself that the perpetual galling sense of her absence was due to this uneasy consciousness of what it meant, of the dark secrets it enveloped and held back from him. In actual truth, every particle of his being missed her, he lacked her at every turn. She had been at once the partner of his task, and the pays bleu into which he escaped from it; the vivifying thought which gave meaning to the life he had chosen, yet never let him forget that there was a larger richer life outside, to which he was rooted by deeper and more intrinsic things than any abstract ideal of altruism. His love had preserved his identity, saved him from shrinking into the mere nameless unit which the social enthusiast is in danger of becoming unless the humanitarian passion is balanced, and a little overweighed, by a merely human one. And now this equilibrium was lost forever, and his deepest pain lay in realizing that he could not regain it, even by casting off Westmore and choosing the narrower but richer individual existence that her love might once have offered. His life was in truth one indivisible organism, not two halves artificially united. Self and other-self were ingrown from the roots — whichever portion fate restricted him to would be but a mutilated half-live fragment of the whole.

Happily for him, chance made this crisis of his life coincide with a strike at Westmore. Soon after his return to Hanaford he found himself compelled to grapple with the hardest problem of his industrial career, and he was carried through the ensuing three months on that tide of swift obligatory action that sweeps the ship-wrecked spirit over so many sunken reefs of fear and despair. The knowledge that he was better able to deal with the question than any one who might conceivably have taken his place — this conviction, which was presently confirmed by the peaceable adjustment of the strike, helped to make the sense of his immediate usefulness outbalance that other, disintegrating doubt as to the final value of such efforts. And so he tried to settle down into a kind of mechanical altruism, in which the reflexes of habit should take the place of that daily renewal of faith and enthusiasm which had been fed from the springs of his own joy.

The autumn came and passed into winter; and after Mr. Langhope’s re-establishment in town Amherst began to resume his usual visits to his step-daughter.

His natural affection for the little girl had been deepened by the unforeseen manner in which her fate had been entrusted to him. The thought of Bessy, softened to compunction by the discovery that her love had persisted under their apparently hopeless estrangement — this feeling, intensified to the verge of morbidness by the circumstances attending her death, now sought expression in a passionate devotion to her child. Accident had, in short, created between Bessy and himself a retrospective sympathy which the resumption of life together would have dispelled in a week — one of the exhalations from the past that depress the vitality of those who linger too near the grave of dead experiences.

Since Justine’s departure Amherst had felt himself still more drawn to Cicely; but his relation to the child was complicated by the fact that she would not be satisfied as to the cause of her step-mother’s absence. Whenever Amherst came to town, her first question was for Justine; and her memory had the precocious persistence sometimes developed in children too early deprived of their natural atmosphere of affection. Cicely had always been petted and adored, at odd times and by divers people; but some instinct seemed to tell her that, of all the tenderness bestowed on her, Justine’s most resembled the all-pervading motherly element in which the child’s heart expands without ever being conscious of its needs.

If it had been embarrassing to evade Cicely’s questions in June it became doubly so as the months passed, and the pretext of Justine’s ill-health grew more and more difficult to sustain. And in the following March Amherst was suddenly called from Hanaford by the news that the little girl herself was ill. Serious complications had developed from a protracted case of scarlet fever, and for two weeks the child’s fate was uncertain. Then she began to recover, and in the joy of seeing life come back to her, Mr. Langhope and Amherst felt as though they must not only gratify every wish she expressed, but try to guess at those they saw floating below the surface of her clear vague eyes.

It was noticeable to Mrs. Ansell, if not to the others, that one of these unexpressed wishes was the desire to see her stepmother. Cicely no longer asked for Justine; but something in her silence, or in the gesture with which she gently put from her other offers of diversion and companionship, suddenly struck Mrs. Ansell as more poignant than speech.

“What is it the child wants?” she asked the governess, in the course of one of their whispered consultations; and the governess, after a moment’s hesitation, replied: “She said something about a letter she wrote to Mrs. Amherst just before she was taken ill — about having had no answer, I think.”

“Ah — she writes to Mrs. Amherst, does she?”

The governess, evidently aware that she trod on delicate ground, tried at once to defend herself and her pupil.

“It was my fault, perhaps. I suggested once that her little compositions should take the form of letters — it usually interests a child more — and she asked if they might be written to Mrs. Amherst.”

“Your fault? Why should not the child write to her step-mother?” Mrs. Ansell rejoined with studied surprise; and on the other’s murmuring: “Of course — of course —— ” she added haughtily: “I trust the letters were sent?”

The governess floundered. “I couldn’t say — but perhaps the nurse. . . . ”

That evening Cicely was less well. There was a slight return of fever, and the doctor, hastily summoned, hinted at the possibility of too much excitement in the sick-room.

“Excitement? There has been no excitement,” Mr. Langhope protested, quivering with the sudden renewal of fear.

“No? The child seemed nervous, uneasy. It’s hard to say why, because she is unusually reserved for her age.”

The medical man took his departure, and Mr. Langhope and Mrs. Ansell faced each other in the disarray produced by a call to arms when all has seemed at peace.

“I shall lose her — I shall lose her!” the grandfather broke out, sinking into his chair with a groan.

Mrs. Ansell, gathering up her furs for departure, turned on him abruptly from the threshold.

“It’s stupid, what you’re doing — stupid!” she exclaimed with unwonted vehemence.

He raised his head with a startled look. “What do you mean — what I’m doing?”

“The child misses Justine. You ought to send for her.”

Mr. Langhope’s hands dropped to the arms of his chair, and he straightened himself up with a pale flash of indignation. “You’ve had moments lately ——!”

“I’ve had moments, yes; and so have you — when the child came back to us, and we stood there and wondered how we could keep her, tie her fast . . . and in those moments I saw . . . saw what she wanted . . . and so did you!”

Mr. Langhope turned away his head. “You’re a sentimentalist!” he flung scornfully back.

“Oh, call me any bad names you please!”

“I won’t send for that woman!”

“No.” She fastened her furs slowly, with the gentle deliberate movements that no emotion ever hastened or disturbed.

“Why do you say no?” he challenged her.

“To make you contradict me, perhaps,” she ventured, after looking at him again.

“Ah —— ” He shifted his position, one elbow supporting his bowed head, his eyes fixed on the ground. Presently he brought out: “Could one ask her to come — and see the child — and go away again — for good?”

“To break the compact at your pleasure, and enter into it again for the same reason?”

“No — no — I see.” He paused, and then looked up at her suddenly. “But what if Amherst won’t have her back himself?”

“Shall I ask him?”

“I tell you he can’t bear to hear her name!”

“But he doesn’t know why she has left him.”

Mr. Langhope gathered his brows in a frown. “Why — what on earth — what possible difference would that make?”

Mrs. Ansell, from the doorway, shed a pitying glance on him. “Ah — if you don’t see!” she murmured.

He sank back into his seat with a groan. “Good heavens, Maria, how you torture me! I see enough as it is — I see too much of the cursed business!”

She paused again, and then slowly moved a step or two nearer, laying her hand on his shoulder.

“There’s one thing you’ve never seen yet, Henry: what Bessy herself would do now — for the child — if she could.”

He sat motionless under her light touch, his eyes on hers, till their inmost thoughts felt for and found each other, as they still sometimes could, through the fog of years and selfishness and worldly habit; then he dropped his face into his hands, hiding it from her with the instinctive shrinking of an aged grief.

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