Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XLIII

JUNE again at Hanaford — and Cicely’s birthday. The anniversary was to coincide, this year, with the opening of the old house at Hopewood, as a kind of pleasure-palace — gymnasium, concert-hall and museum — for the recreation of the mill-hands.

The idea had first come to Amherst on the winter afternoon when Bessy Westmore had confessed her love for him under the snow-laden trees of Hopewood. Even then the sense that his personal happiness was enlarged and secured by its promise of happiness to others had made him wish that the scene associated with the opening of his new life should be made to commemorate a corresponding change in the fortunes of Westmore. But when the control of the mills passed into his hands other and more necessary improvements pressed upon him; and it was not till now that the financial condition of the company had permitted the execution of his plan.

Justine, on her return to Hanaford, had found the work already in progress, and had been told by her husband that he was carrying out a projected scheme of Bessy’s. She had felt a certain surprise, but had concluded that the plan in question dated back to the early days of his first marriage, when, in his wife’s eyes, his connection with the mills still invested them with interest.

Since Justine had come back to her husband, both had tacitly avoided all allusions to the past, and the recreation-house at Hopewood being, as she divined, in some sort an expiatory offering to Bessy’s plaintive shade, she had purposely refrained from questioning Amherst about its progress, and had simply approved the plans he submitted to her.

Fourteen months had passed since her return, and now, as she sat beside her husband in the carriage which was conveying them to Hopewood, she said to herself that her life had at last fallen into what promised to be its final shape — that as things now were they would probably be to the end. And outwardly at least they were what she and Amherst had always dreamed of their being. Westmore prospered under the new rule. The seeds of life they had sown there were springing up in a promising growth of bodily health and mental activity, and above all in a dawning social consciousness. The mill-hands were beginning to understand the meaning of their work, in its relation to their own lives and to the larger economy. And outwardly, also, the new growth was showing itself in the humanized aspect of the place. Amherst’s young maples were tall enough now to cast a shade on the grass-bordered streets; and the well-kept turf, the bright cottage gardens, the new central group of library, hospital and club-house, gave to the mill-village the hopeful air of a “rising” residential suburb.

In the bright June light, behind their fresh green mantle of trees and creepers, even the factory buildings looked less stern and prison-like than formerly; and the turfing and planting of the adjoining river-banks had transformed a waste of foul mud and refuse into a little park where the operatives might refresh themselves at midday.

Yes — Westmore was alive at last: the dead city of which Justine had once spoken had risen from its grave, and its blank face had taken on a meaning. As Justine glanced at her husband she saw that the same thought was in his mind. However achieved, at whatever cost of personal misery and error, the work of awakening and freeing Westmore was done, and that work had justified itself.

She looked from Amherst to Cicely, who sat opposite, eager and rosy in her mourning frock — for Mr. Langhope had died some two months previously — and as intent as her step-parents on the scene before her. Cicely was old enough now to regard her connection with Westmore as something more than a nursery game. She was beginning to learn a great deal about the mills, and to understand, in simple, friendly ways, something of her own relation to them. The work and play of the children, the interests and relaxations provided for their elders, had been gradually explained to her by Justine, and she knew that this shining tenth birthday of hers was to throw its light as far as the clouds of factory-smoke extended.

As they mounted the slope to Hopewood, the spacious white building, with its enfolding colonnades, its broad terraces and tennis-courts, shone through the trees like some bright country-house adorned for its master’s home-coming; and Amherst and his wife might have been driving up to the house which had been built to shelter their wedded happiness. The thought flashed across Justine as their carriage climbed the hill. She was as much absorbed as Amherst in the welfare of Westmore, it had become more and more, to both, the refuge in which their lives still met and mingled; but for a moment, as they paused before the flower-decked porch, and he turned to help her from the carriage, it occurred to her to wonder what her sensations would have been if he had been bringing her home — to a real home of their own — instead of accompanying her to another philanthropic celebration. But what need had they of a real home, when they no longer had any real life of their own? Nothing was left of that secret inner union which had so enriched and beautified their outward lives. Since Justine’s return to Hanaford they had entered, tacitly, almost unconsciously, into a new relation to each other: a relation in which their personalities were more and more merged in their common work, so that, as it were, they met only by avoiding each other.

From the first, Justine had accepted this as inevitable; just as she had understood, when Amherst had sought her out in New York, that his remaining at Westmore, which had once been contingent on her leaving him, now depended on her willingness to return and take up their former life.

She accepted the last condition as she had accepted the other, pledged to the perpetual expiation of an act for which, in the abstract, she still refused to hold herself to blame. But life is not a matter of abstract principles, but a succession of pitiful compromises with fate, of concessions to old tradition, old beliefs, old charities and frailties. That was what her act had taught her — that was the word of the gods to the mortal who had laid a hand on their bolts. And she had humbled herself to accept the lesson, seeing human relations at last as a tangled and deep-rooted growth, a dark forest through which the idealist cannot cut his straight path without hearing at each stroke the cry of the severed branch: “Why woundest thou me?

The lawns leading up to the house were already sprinkled with holiday-makers, while along the avenue came the rolling of wheels, the throb of motor-cars; and Justine, with Cicely beside her, stood in the wide hall to receive the incoming throng, in which Hanaford society was indiscriminately mingled with the operatives in their Sunday best.

While his wife welcomed the new arrivals, Amherst, supported by some young Westmore cousins, was guiding them into the concert-hall, where he was to say a word on the uses of the building before declaring it open for inspection. And presently Justine and Cicely, summoned by Westy Gaines, made their way through the rows of seats to a corner near the platform. Her husband was there already, with Halford Gaines and a group of Hanaford dignitaries, and just below them sat Mrs. Gaines and her daughters, the Harry Dressels, and Amherst’s radiant mother.

As Justine passed between them, she wondered how much they knew of the events which had wrought so profound and permanent change in her life. She had never known how Hanaford explained her absence or what comments it had made on her return. But she saw to-day more clearly than ever that Amherst had become a power among his townsmen, and that if they were still blind to the inner meaning of his work, its practical results were beginning to impress them profoundly. Hanaford’s sociological creed was largely based on commercial considerations, and Amherst had won Hanaford’s esteem by the novel feat of defying its economic principles and snatching success out of his defiance.

And now he had advanced a step or two in front of the “representative” semi-circle on the platform, and was beginning to speak.

Justine did not hear his first words. She was looking up at him, trying to see him with the eyes of the crowd, and wondering what manner of man he would have seemed to her if she had known as little as they did of his inner history.

He held himself straight, the heavy locks thrown back from his forehead, one hand resting on the table beside him, the other grasping a folded blue-print which the architect of the building had just advanced to give him. As he stood there, Justine recalled her first sight of him in the Hope Hospital, five years earlier — was it only five years? They had dealt deep strokes to his face, hollowing the eye-sockets, accentuating the strong modelling of nose and chin, fixing the lines between the brows; but every touch had a meaning — it was not the languid hand of time which had remade his features, but the sharp chisel of thought and action.

She roused herself suddenly to the consciousness of what he was saying.

“For the idea of this building — of a building dedicated to the recreation of Westmore — is not new in my mind; but while it remained there as a mere idea, it had already, without my knowledge, taken definite shape in the thoughts of the owner of Westmore.”

There was a slight drop in his voice as he designated Bessy, and he waited a moment before continuing: “It was not till after the death of my first wife that I learned of her intention — that I found by accident, among her papers, this carefully-studied plan for a pleasure-house at Hopewood.”

He paused again, and unrolling the blue-print, held it up before his audience.

“You cannot, at this distance,” he went on, “see all the admirable details of her plan; see how beautifully they were imagined, how carefully and intelligently elaborated. She who conceived them longed to see beauty everywhere — it was her dearest wish to bestow it on her people here. And her ardent imagination outran the bounds of practical possibility. We cannot give you, in its completeness, the beautiful thing she had imagined — the great terraces, the marble porches, the fountains, lily-tanks, and cloisters. But you will see that, wherever it was possible — though in humbler materials, and on a smaller scale — we have faithfully followed her design; and when presently you go through this building, and when, hereafter, you find health and refreshment and diversion here, I ask you to remember the beauty she dreamed of giving you, and to let the thought of it make her memory beautiful among you and among your children. . . . ”

Justine had listened with deepening amazement. She was seated so close to her husband that she had recognized the blue-print the moment he unrolled it. There was no mistaking its origin — it was simply the plan of the gymnasium which Bessy had intended to build at Lynbrook, and which she had been constrained to abandon owing to her husband’s increased expenditure at the mills. But how was it possible that Amherst knew nothing of the original purpose of the plans, and by what mocking turn of events had a project devised in deliberate defiance of his wishes, and intended to declare his wife’s open contempt for them, been transformed into a Utopian vision for the betterment of the Westmore operatives?

A wave of anger swept over Justine at this last derisive stroke of fate. It was grotesque and pitiable that a man like Amherst should create out of his regrets a being who had never existed, and then ascribe to her feelings and actions of which the real woman had again and again proved herself incapable!

Ah, no, Justine had suffered enough — but to have this imaginary Bessy called from the grave, dressed in a semblance of self-devotion and idealism, to see her petty impulses of vindictiveness disguised as the motions of a lofty spirit — it was as though her small malicious ghost had devised this way of punishing the wife who had taken her place!

Justine had suffered enough — suffered deliberately and unstintingly, paying the full price of her error, not seeking to evade its least consequence. But no sane judgment could ask her to sit quiet under this last hallucination. What! This unreal woman, this phantom that Amherst’s uneasy imagination had evoked, was to come between himself and her, to supplant her first as his wife, and then as his fellow-worker? Why should she not cry out the truth to him, defend herself against the dead who came back to rob her of such wedded peace as was hers? She had only to tell the true story of the plans to lay poor Bessy’s ghost forever!

The confused throbbing impulses within her were stifled under a long burst of applause — then she saw Westy Gaines at her side again, and understood that he had come to lead Cicely to the platform. For a moment she clung jealously to the child’s hand, hardly aware of what she did, feeling only that she was being thrust farther and farther into the background of the life she had helped to call out of chaos. Then a contrary impulse moved her. She gently freed Cicely’s hand, and a moment later, as she sat with bent head and throbbing breast, she heard the child’s treble piping out above her:

“In my mother’s name, I give this house to Westmore.”

Applause again — and then Justine found herself enveloped in a general murmur of compliment and congratulation. Mr. Amherst had spoken admirably — a “beautiful tribute — ” ah, he had done poor Bessy justice! And to think that till now Hanaford had never fully known how she had the welfare of the mills at heart — how it was really only her work that he was carrying on there! Well, he had made that perfectly clear — and no doubt Cicely was being taught to follow in her mother’s footsteps: everyone had noticed how her step-father was associating her with the work at the mills. And his little speech would, as it were, consecrate the child’s relation to that work, make it appear to her as the continuance of a beautiful, a sacred tradition. . . .

And now it was over. The building had been inspected, the operatives had dispersed, the Hanaford company had rolled off down the avenue, Cicely, among them, driving away tired and happy in Mrs. Dressel’s victoria, and Amherst and his wife were alone.

Amherst, after bidding good-bye to his last guests, had gone back to the empty concert-room to fetch the blue-print lying on the platform. He came back with it, between the uneven rows of empty chairs, and joined Justine, who stood waiting in the hall. His face was slightly flushed, and his eyes had the light which in happy moments burned through their veil of thought.

He laid his hand on his wife’s arm, and drawing her toward a table spread out the blueprint before her.

“You haven’t seen this, have you?” he said.

She looked down at the plan without answering, reading in the left-hand corner the architect’s conventional inscription: “Swimming-tank and gymnasium designed for Mrs. John Amherst.”

Amherst looked up, perhaps struck by her silence.

“But perhaps you have seen it — at Lynbrook? It must have been done while you were there.”

The quickened throb of her blood rushed to her brain like a signal. “Speak — speak now!” the signal commanded.

Justine continued to look fixedly at the plan. “Yes, I have seen it,” she said at length.

“At Lynbrook?”

“At Lynbrook.”

She showed it to you, I suppose — while I was away?”

Justine hesitated again. “Yes, while you were away.”

“And did she tell you anything about it, go into details about her wishes, her intentions?”

Now was the moment — now! As her lips parted she looked up at her husband. The illumination still lingered on his face — and it was the face she loved. He was waiting eagerly for her next word.

“No, I heard no details. I merely saw the plan lying there.”

She saw his look of disappointment. “She never told you about it?”

“No — she never told me.”

It was best so, after all. She understood that now. It was now at last that she was paying her full price.

Amherst rolled up the plan with a sigh and pushed it into the drawer of the table. It struck her that he too had the look of one who has laid a ghost. He turned to her and drew her hand through his arm.

“You’re tired, dear. You ought to have driven back with the others,” he said.

“No, I would rather stay with you.”

“You want to drain this good day to the dregs, as I do?”

“Yes,” she murmured, drawing her hand away.

“It is a good day, isn’t it?” he continued, looking about him at the white-panelled walls, the vista of large bright rooms seen through the folding doors. “I feel as if we had reached a height, somehow — a height where one might pause and draw breath for the next climb. Don’t you feel that too, Justine?”

“Yes — I feel it.”

“Do you remember once, long ago — one day when you and I and Cicely went on a picnic to hunt orchids — how we got talking of the one best moment in life — the moment when one wanted most to stop the clock?”

The colour rose in her face while he spoke. It was a long time since he had referred to the early days of their friendship — the days before. . . .

“Yes, I remember,” she said.

“And do you remember how we said that it was with most of us as it was with Faust? That the moment one wanted to hold fast to was not, in most lives, the moment of keenest personal happiness, but the other kind — the kind that would have seemed grey and colourless at first: the moment when the meaning of life began to come out from the mists — when one could look out at last over the marsh one had drained?”

A tremor ran through Justine. “It was you who said that,” she said, half-smiling.

“But didn’t you feel it with me? Don’t you now?”

“Yes — I do now,” she murmured.

He came close to her, and taking her hands in his, kissed them one after the other.

“Dear,” he said, “let us go out and look at the marsh we have drained.”

He turned and led her through the open doorway to the terrace above the river. The sun was setting behind the wooded slopes of Hopewood, and the trees about the house stretched long blue shadows across the lawn. Beyond them rose the smoke of Westmore.

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