Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XLI

AMHERST, Cicely’s convalescence once assured, had been obliged to go back to Hanaford; but some ten days later, on hearing from Mrs. Ansell that the little girl’s progress was less rapid than had been hoped, he returned to his father-in-law’s for a Sunday.

He came two days after the talk recorded in the last chapter — a talk of which Mrs. Ansell’s letter to him had been the direct result. She had promised Mr. Langhope that, in writing to Amherst, she would not go beyond the briefest statement of fact; and she had kept her word, trusting to circumstances to speak for her.

Mrs. Ansell, during Cicely’s illness, had formed the habit of dropping in on Mr. Langhope at the tea hour instead of awaiting him in her own drawing-room; and on the Sunday in question she found him alone. Beneath his pleasure in seeing her, which had grown more marked as his dependence on her increased, she at once discerned traces of recent disturbance; and her first question was for Cicely.

He met it with a discouraged gesture. “No great change — Amherst finds her less well than when he was here before.”

“He’s upstairs with her?”

“Yes — she seems to want him.”

Mrs. Ansell seated herself in silence behind the tea-tray, of which she was now recognized as the officiating priestess. As she drew off her long gloves, and mechanically straightened the row of delicate old cups, Mr. Langhope added with an effort: “I’ve spoken to him — told him what you said.”

She looked up quickly.

“About the child’s wish,” he continued. “About her having written to his wife. It seems her last letters have not been answered.”

He paused, and Mrs. Ansell, with her usual calm precision, proceeded to measure the tea into the fluted Georgian tea-pot. She could be as reticent in approval as in reprehension, and not for the world would she have seemed to claim any share in the turn that events appeared to be taking. She even preferred the risk of leaving her old friend to add half-reproachfully: “I told Amherst what you and the nurse thought.”

“Yes?”

“That Cicely pines for his wife. I put it to him in black and white.” The words came out on a deep strained breath, and Mrs. Ansell faltered: “Well?”

“Well — he doesn’t know where she is himself.”

“Doesn’t know?”

“They’re separated — utterly separated. It’s as I told you: he could hardly name her.”

Mrs. Ansell had unconsciously ceased her ministrations, letting her hands fall on her knee while she brooded in blank wonder on her companion’s face.

“I wonder what reason she could have given him?” she murmured at length.

“For going? He loathes her, I tell you!”

“Yes — but how did she make him?”

He struck his hand violently on the arm of his chair. “Upon my soul, you seem to forget!”

“No.” She shook her head with a half smile. “I simply remember more than you do.”

“What more?” he began with a flush of anger; but she raised a quieting hand.

“What does all that matter — if, now that we need her, we can’t get her?”

He made no answer, and she returned to the dispensing of his tea; but as she rose to put the cup in his hand he asked, half querulously: “You think it’s going to be very bad for the child, then?”

Mrs. Ansell smiled with the thin edge of her lips. “One can hardly set the police after her ——!”

“No; we’re powerless,” he groaned in assent.

As the cup passed between them she dropped her eyes to his with a quick flash of interrogation; but he sat staring moodily before him, and she moved back to the sofa without a word.

On the way downstairs she met Amherst descending from Cicely’s room.

Since the early days of his first marriage there had always been, on Amherst’s side, a sense of obscure antagonism toward Mrs. Ansell. She was almost the embodied spirit of the world he dreaded and disliked: her serenity, her tolerance, her adaptability, seemed to smile away and disintegrate all the high enthusiasms, the stubborn convictions, that he had tried to plant in the shifting sands of his married life. And now that Bessy’s death had given her back the attributes with which his fancy had originally invested her, he had come to regard Mrs. Ansell as embodying the evil influences that had come between himself and his wife.

Mrs. Ansell was probably not unaware of the successive transitions of feeling which had led up to this unflattering view; but her life had been passed among petty rivalries and animosities, and she had the patience and adroitness of the spy in a hostile camp.

She and Amherst exchanged a few words about Cicely; then she exclaimed, with a glance through the panes of the hall door: “But I must be off — I’m on foot, and the crossings appal me after dark.”

He could do no less, at that, than offer to guide her across the perils of Fifth Avenue; and still talking of Cicely, she led him down the thronged thoroughfare till her own corner was reached, and then her own door; turning there to ask, as if by an afterthought: “Won’t you come up? There’s one thing more I want to say.”

A shade of reluctance crossed his face, which, as the vestibule light fell on it, looked hard and tired, like a face set obstinately against a winter gale; but he murmured a word of assent, and followed her into the shining steel cage of the lift.

In her little drawing-room, among the shaded lamps and bowls of spring flowers, she pushed a chair forward, settled herself in her usual corner of the sofa, and said with a directness that seemed an echo of his own tone: “I asked you to come up because I want to talk to you about Mr. Langhope.”

Amherst looked at her in surprise. Though his father-in-law’s health had been more or less unsatisfactory for the last year, all their concern, of late, had been for Cicely.

“You think him less well?” he enquired.

She waited to draw off and smooth her gloves, with one of the deliberate gestures that served to shade and supplement her speech.

“I think him extremely unhappy.”

Amherst moved uneasily in his seat. He did not know where she meant the talk to lead them, but he guessed that it would be over painful places, and he saw no reason why he should be forced to follow her.

“You mean that he’s still anxious about Cicely?”

“Partly that — yes.” She paused. “The child will get well, no doubt; but she is very lonely. She needs youth, heat, light. Mr. Langhope can’t give her those, or even a semblance of them; and it’s an art I’ve lost the secret of,” she added with her shadowy smile.

Amherst’s brows darkened. “I realize all she has lost —— ”

Mrs. Ansell glanced up at him quickly. “She is twice motherless,” she said.

The blood rose to his neck and temples, and he tightened his hand on the arm of his chair. But it was a part of Mrs. Ansell’s expertness to know when such danger signals must be heeded and when they might be ignored, and she went on quietly: “It’s the question of the future that is troubling Mr. Langhope. After such an illness, the next months of Cicely’s life should be all happiness. And money won’t buy the kind she needs: one can’t pick out the right companion for such a child as one can match a ribbon. What she wants is spontaneous affection, not the most superlative manufactured article. She wants the sort of love that Justine gave her.”

It was the first time in months that Amherst had heard his wife’s name spoken outside of his own house. No one but his mother mentioned Justine to him now; and of late even his mother had dropped her enquiries and allusions, prudently acquiescing in the habit of silence which his own silence had created about him. To hear the name again — the two little syllables which had been the key of life to him, and now shook him as the turning of a rusted lock shakes a long-closed door — to hear her name spoken familiarly, affectionately, as one speaks of some one who may come into the room the next moment — gave him a shock that was half pain, and half furtive unacknowledged joy. Men whose conscious thoughts are mostly projected outward, on the world of external activities, may be more moved by such a touch on the feelings than those who are perpetually testing and tuning their emotional chords. Amherst had foreseen from the first that Mrs. Ansell might mean to speak of his wife; but though he had intended, if she did so, to cut their talk short, he now felt himself irresistibly constrained to hear her out.

Mrs. Ansell, having sped her shaft, followed its flight through lowered lashes, and saw that it had struck a vulnerable point; but she was far from assuming that the day was won.

“I believe,” she continued, “that Mr. Langhope has said something of this to you already, and my only excuse for speaking is that I understood he had not been successful in his appeal.”

No one but Mrs. Ansell — and perhaps she knew it — could have pushed so far beyond the conventional limits of discretion without seeming to overstep them by a hair; and she had often said, when pressed for the secret of her art, that it consisted simply in knowing the pass-word. That word once spoken, she might have added, the next secret was to give the enemy no time for resistance; and though she saw the frown reappear between Amherst’s eyes, she went on, without heeding it: “I entreat you, Mr. Amherst, to let Cicely see your wife.”

He reddened again, and pushed back his chair, as if to rise.

“No — don’t break off like that! Let me say a word more. I know your answer to Mr. Langhope — that you and Justine are no longer together. But I thought of you as a man to sink your personal relations at such a moment as this.”

“To sink them?” he repeated vaguely: and she went on: “After all, what difference does it make?”

“What difference?” He stared in unmitigated wonder, and then answered, with a touch of irony: “It might at least make the difference of my being unwilling to ask a favour of her.”

Mrs. Ansell, at this, raised her eyes and let them rest full on his. “Because she has done you so great a one already?”

He stared again, sinking back automatically into his chair. “I don’t understand you.”

“No.” She smiled a little, as if to give herself time. “But I mean that you shall. If I were a man I suppose I couldn’t, because a man’s code of honour is such a clumsy cast-iron thing. But a woman’s, luckily, can be cut over — if she’s clever — to fit any new occasion; and in this case I should be willing to reduce mine to tatters if necessary.”

Amherst’s look of bewilderment deepened. “What is it that I don’t understand?” he asked at length, in a low voice.

“Well — first of all, why Mr. Langhope had the right to ask you to send for your wife.”

“The right?”

“You don’t recognize such a right on his part?”

“No — why should I?”

“Supposing she had left you by his wish?”

“His wish? His ——?

He was on his feet now, gazing at her blindly, while the solid world seemed to grow thin about him. Her next words reduced it to a mist.

“My poor Amherst — why else, on earth, should she have left you?”

She brought it out clearly, in her small chiming tones; and as the sound travelled toward him it seemed to gather momentum, till her words rang through his brain as if every incomprehensible incident in the past had suddenly boomed forth the question. Why else, indeed, should she have left him? He stood motionless for a while; then he approached Mrs. Ansell and said: “Tell me.”

She drew farther back into her corner of the sofa, waving him to a seat beside her, as though to bring his inquisitory eyes on a level where her own could command them; but he stood where he was, unconscious of her gesture, and merely repeating: “Tell me.”

She may have said to herself that a woman would have needed no farther telling; but to him she only replied, slanting her head up to his: “To spare you and himself pain — to keep everything, between himself and you, as it had been before you married her.”

He dropped down beside her at that, grasping the back of the sofa as if he wanted something to clutch and throttle. The veins swelled in his temples, and as he pushed back his tossed hair Mrs. Ansell noticed for the first time how gray it had grown on the under side.

“And he asked this of my wife — he accepted it?’”

“Haven’t you accepted it?”

“I? How could I guess her reasons — how could I imagine ——?”

Mrs. Ansell raised her brows a hair’s breadth at that. “I don’t know. But as a fact, he didn’t ask — it was she who offered, who forced it on him, even!”

“Forced her going on him?”

“In a sense, yes; by making it appear that you felt as he did about — about poor Bessy’s death: that the thought of what had happened at that time was as abhorrent to you as to him — that she was as abhorrent to you. No doubt she foresaw that, had she permitted the least doubt on that point, there would have been no need of her leaving you, since the relation between yourself and Mr. Langhope would have been altered — destroyed. . . . ”

“Yes. I expected that — I warned her of it. But how did she make him think ——?”

“How can I tell? To begin with, I don’t know your real feeling. For all I know she was telling the truth — and Mr. Langhope of course thought she was.”

“That I abhorred her? Oh —— ” he broke out, on his feet in an instant.

“Then why ——?”

“Why did I let her leave me?” He strode across the room, as his habit was in moments of agitation, turning back to her again before he answered. “Because I didn’t know — didn’t know anything! And because her insisting on going away like that, without any explanation, made me feel . . . imagine there was . . . something she didn’t want me to know . . . something she was afraid of not being able to hide from me if we stayed together any longer.”

“Well — there was: the extent to which she loved you.”

Mrs. Ansell; her hands clasped on her knee, her gaze holding his with a kind of visionary fixity, seemed to reconstruct the history of his past, bit by bit, with the words she was dragging out of him.

“I see it — I see it all now,” she went on, with a repressed fervour that he had never divined in her. “It was the only solution for her, as well as for the rest of you. The more she showed her love, the more it would have cast a doubt on her motive . . . the greater distance she would have put between herself and you. And so she showed it in the only way that was safe for both of you, by taking herself away and hiding it in her heart; and before going, she secured your peace of mind, your future. If she ruined anything, she rebuilt the ruin. Oh, she paid — she paid in full!”

Justine had paid, yes — paid to the utmost limit of whatever debt toward society she had contracted by overstepping its laws. And her resolve to discharge the debt had been taken in a flash, as soon as she had seen that man can commit no act alone, whether for good or evil. The extent to which Amherst’s fate was involved in hers had become clear to her with his first word of reassurance, of faith in her motive. And instantly a plan for releasing him had leapt full-formed into her mind, and had been carried out with swift unflinching resolution. As he forced himself, now, to look down the suddenly illuminated past to the weeks which had elapsed between her visit to Mr. Langhope and her departure from Hanaford, he wondered not so much at her swiftness of resolve as at her firmness in carrying out her plan — and he saw, with a blinding flash of insight, that it was in her love for him that she had found her strength.

In all moments of strong mental tension he became totally unconscious of time and place, and he now remained silent so long, his hands clasped behind him, his eyes fixed on an indeterminate point in space, that Mrs. Ansell at length rose and laid a questioning touch on his arm.

“It’s not true that you don’t know where she is?” His face contracted. “At this moment I don’t. Lately she has preferred . . . not to write. . . . ”

“But surely you must know how to find her?”

He tossed back his hair with an energetic movement. “I should find her if I didn’t know how!”

They stood confronted in a gaze of silent intensity, each penetrating farther into the mind of the other than would once have seemed possible to either one; then Amherst held out his hand abruptly. “Good-bye — and thank you,” he said.

She detained him a moment. “We shall see you soon again — see you both?”

His face grew stern. “It’s not to oblige Mr. Langhope that I am going to find my wife.”

“Ah, now you are unjust to him!” she exclaimed.

“Don’t let us speak of him!” he broke in.

“Why not? When it is from him the request comes — the entreaty — that everything in the past should be forgotten?”

“Yes — when it suits his convenience!”

“Do you imagine that — even judging him in that way — it has not cost him a struggle?”

“I can only think of what it has cost her!”

Mrs. Ansell drew a deep sighing breath. “Ah — but don’t you see that she has gained her point, and that nothing else matters to her?”

“Gained her point? Not if, by that, you mean that things here can ever go back to the old state — that she and I can remain at Westmore after this!”

Mrs. Ansell dropped her eyes for a moment; then she lifted to his her sweet impenetrable face.

“Do you know what you have to do — both you and he? Exactly what she decides,” she affirmed.

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