Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

V

MRS. WESTMORE stayed just long enough not to break in too abruptly on the flow of her friend’s reminiscences, and to impress herself on Mrs. Amherst’s delighted eyes as an embodiment of tactfulness and grace — looking sympathetically about the little room, which, with its books, its casts, its photographs of memorable pictures, seemed, after all, a not incongruous setting to her charms; so that when she rose to go, saying, as her hand met Amherst’s, “Tonight, then, you must tell me all about those poor Dillons,” he had the sense of having penetrated so far into her intimacy that a new Westmore must inevitably result from their next meeting.

“Say, John — the boss is a looker,” Duplain commented across the dinner-table, with the slangy grossness he sometimes affected; but Amherst left it to his mother to look a quiet rebuke, feeling himself too aloof from such contacts to resent them.

He had to rouse himself with an effort to take in the overseer’s next observation. “There was another lady at the office this morning,” Duplain went on, while the two men lit their cigars in the porch. “Asking after you — tried to get me to show her over the mills when I said you were busy.”

“Asking after me? What did she look like?”

“Well, her face was kinder white and small, with an awful lot of black hair fitting close to it. Said she came from Hope Hospital.”

Amherst looked up. “Did you show her over?” he asked with sudden interest.

Duplain laughed slangily. “What? Me? And have Truscomb get on to it and turn me down? How’d I know she wasn’t a yellow reporter?”

Amherst uttered an impatient exclamation. “I wish to heaven a yellow reporter would go through these mills, and show them up in head-lines a yard high!”

He regretted not having seen the nurse again: he felt sure she would have been interested in the working of the mills, and quick to notice the signs of discouragement and ill-health in the workers’ faces; but a moment later his regret was dispelled by the thought of his visit to Mrs. Westmore. The afternoon hours dragged slowly by in the office, where he was bound to his desk by Truscomb’s continued absence; but at length the evening whistle blew, the clerks in the outer room caught their hats from the rack, Duplain presented himself with the day’s report, and the two men were free to walk home.

Two hours later Amherst was mounting Mrs. Westmore’s steps; and his hand was on the bell when the door opened and Dr. Disbrow came out. The physician drew back, as if surprised and slightly disconcerted; but his smile promptly effaced all signs of vexation, and he held his hand out affably.

“A fine evening, Mr. Amherst. I’m glad to say I have been able to bring Mrs. Westmore an excellent report of both patients — Mr. Truscomb, I mean, and poor Dillon. This mild weather is all in their favour, and I hope my brother-in-law will be about in a day or two.” He passed on with a nod.

Amherst was once more shown into the library where he had found Mrs. Westmore that morning; but on this occasion it was Mr. Tredegar who rose to meet him, and curtly waved him to a seat at a respectful distance from his own. Amherst at once felt a change of atmosphere, and it was easy to guess that the lowering of temperature was due to Dr. Disbrow’s recent visit. The thought roused the young man’s combative instincts, and caused him to say, as Mr. Tredegar continued to survey him in silence from the depths of a capacious easy-chair: “I understood from Mrs. Westmore that she wished to see me this evening.”

It was the wrong note, and he knew it; but he had been unable to conceal his sense of the vague current of opposition in the air.

“Quite so: I believe she asked you to come,” Mr. Tredegar assented, laying his hands together vertically, and surveying Amherst above the acute angle formed by his parched finger-tips. As he leaned back, small, dry, dictatorial, in the careless finish of his evening dress and pearl-studded shirt-front, his appearance put the finishing touch to Amherst’s irritation. He felt the incongruousness of his rough clothes in this atmosphere of after-dinner ease, the mud on his walking-boots, the clinging cotton-dust which seemed to have entered into the very pores of the skin; and again his annoyance escaped in his voice.

“Perhaps I have come too early — ” he began; but Mr. Tredegar interposed with glacial amenity: “No, I believe you are exactly on time; but Mrs. Westmore is unexpectedly detained. The fact is, Mr. and Mrs. Halford Gaines are dining with her, and she has delegated to me the duty of hearing what you have to say.”

Amherst hesitated. His impulse was to exclaim: “There is no duty about it!” but a moment’s thought showed the folly of thus throwing up the game. With the prospect of Truscomb’s being about again in a day or two, it might well be that this was his last chance of reaching Mrs. Westmore’s ear; and he was bound to put his case while he could, irrespective of personal feeling. But his disappointment was too keen to be denied, and after a pause he said: “Could I not speak with Mrs. Westmore later?”

Mr. Tredegar’s cool survey deepened to a frown. The young man’s importunity was really out of proportion to what he signified. “Mrs. Westmore has asked me to replace her,” he said, putting his previous statement more concisely.

“Then I am not to see her at all?” Amherst exclaimed; and the lawyer replied indifferently: “I am afraid not, as she leaves tomorrow.”

Mr. Tredegar was in his element when refusing a favour. Not that he was by nature unkind; he was, indeed, capable of a cold beneficence; but to deny what it was in his power to accord was the readiest way of proclaiming his authority, that power of loosing and binding which made him regard himself as almost consecrated to his office.

Having sacrificed to this principle, he felt free to add as a gratuitous concession to politeness: “You are perhaps not aware that I am Mrs. Westmore’s lawyer, and one of the executors under her husband’s will.”

He dropped this negligently, as though conscious of the absurdity of presenting his credentials to a subordinate; but his manner no longer incensed Amherst: it merely strengthened his resolve to sink all sense of affront in the supreme effort of obtaining a hearing.

“With that stuffed canary to advise her,” he reflected, “there’s no hope for her unless I can assert myself now”; and the unconscious wording of his thought expressed his inward sense that Bessy Westmore stood in greater need of help than her work-people.

Still he hesitated, hardly knowing how to begin. To Mr. Tredegar he was no more than an underling, without authority to speak in his superior’s absence; and the lack of an official warrant, which he could have disregarded in appealing to Mrs. Westmore, made it hard for him to find a good opening in addressing her representative. He saw, too, from Mr. Tredegar’s protracted silence, that the latter counted on the effect of this embarrassment, and was resolved not to minimize it by giving him a lead; and this had the effect of increasing his caution.

He looked up and met the lawyer’s eye. “Mrs. Westmore,” he began, “asked me to let her know something about the condition of the people at the mills —— ”

Mr. Tredegar raised his hand. “Excuse me,” he said. “I understood from Mrs. Westmore that it was you who asked her permission to call this evening and set forth certain grievances on the part of the operatives.”

Amherst reddened. “I did ask her — yes. But I don’t in any sense represent the operatives. I simply wanted to say a word for them.”

Mr. Tredegar folded his hands again, and crossed one lean little leg over the other, bringing into his line of vision the glossy tip of a patent-leather pump, which he studied for a moment in silence.

“Does Mr. Truscomb know of your intention?” he then enquired.

“No, sir,” Amherst answered energetically, glad that he had forced the lawyer out of his passive tactics. “I am here on my own responsibility — and in direct opposition to my own interests,” he continued with a slight smile. “I know that my proceeding is quite out of order, and that I have, personally, everything to lose by it, and in a larger way probably very little to gain; but I thought Mrs. Westmore’s attention ought to be called to certain conditions at the mills, and no one else seemed likely to speak of them.”

“May I ask why you assume that Mr. Truscomb will not do so when he has the opportunity?”

Amherst could not repress a smile. “Because it is owing to Mr. Truscomb that they exist.”

“The real object of your visit then,” said Mr. Tredegar, speaking with deliberation, “is — er — an underhand attack on your manager’s methods?”

Amherst’s face darkened, but he kept his temper. “I see nothing especially underhand in my course —— ”

“Except,” the other interposed ironically, “that you have waited to speak till Mr. Truscomb was not in a position to defend himself.”

“I never had the chance before. It was at Mrs. Westmore’s own suggestion that I took her over the mills, and feeling as I do I should have thought it cowardly to shirk the chance of pointing out to her the conditions there.”

Mr. Tredegar mused, his eyes still bent on his gently-oscillating foot. Whenever a sufficient pressure from without parted the fog of self-complacency in which he moved, he had a shrewd enough outlook on men and motives; and it may be that the vigorous ring of Amherst’s answer had effected this momentary clearing of the air.

At any rate, his next words were spoken in a more accessible tone. “To what conditions do you refer?”

“To the conditions under which the mill-hands work and live — to the whole management of the mills, in fact, in relation to the people employed.”

“That is a large question. Pardon my possible ignorance — ” Mr. Tredegar paused to make sure that his hearer took in the full irony of this — “but surely in this state there are liability and inspection laws for the protection of the operatives?”

“There are such laws, yes — but most of them are either a dead letter, or else so easily evaded that no employer thinks of conforming to them.”

“No employer? Then your specific charge against the Westmore mills is part of a general arraignment of all employers of labour?”

“By no means, sir. I only meant that, where the hands are well treated, it is due rather to the personal good-will of the employer than to any fear of the law.”

“And in what respect do you think the Westmore hands unfairly treated?”

Amherst paused to measure his words. “The question, as you say, is a large one,” he rejoined. “It has its roots in the way the business is organized — in the traditional attitude of the company toward the operatives. I hoped that Mrs. Westmore might return to the mills — might visit some of the people in their houses. Seeing their way of living, it might have occurred to her to ask a reason for it — and one enquiry would have led to another. She spoke this morning of going to the hospital to see Dillon.”

“She did go to the hospital: I went with her. But as Dillon was sleeping, and as the matron told us he was much better — a piece of news which, I am happy to say, Dr. Disbrow has just confirmed — she did not go up to the ward.”

Amherst was silent, and Mr. Tredegar pursued: “I gather, from your bringing up Dillon’s case, that for some reason you consider it typical of the defects you find in Mr. Truscomb’s management. Suppose, therefore, we drop generalizations, and confine ourselves to the particular instance. What wrong, in your view, has been done the Dillons?”

He turned, as he spoke, to extract a cigar from the box at his elbow. “Let me offer you one, Mr. Amherst: we shall talk more comfortably,” he suggested with distant affability; but Amherst, with a gesture of refusal, plunged into his exposition of the Dillon case. He tried to put the facts succinctly, presenting them in their bare ugliness, without emotional drapery; setting forth Dillon’s good record for sobriety and skill, dwelling on the fact that his wife’s ill-health was the result of perfectly remediable conditions in the work-rooms, and giving his reasons for the belief that the accident had been caused, not by Dillon’s carelessness, but by the over-crowding of the carding-room. Mr. Tredegar listened attentively, though the cloud of cigar-smoke between himself and Amherst masked from the latter his possible changes of expression. When he removed his cigar, his face looked smaller than ever, as though desiccated by the fumes of the tobacco.

“Have you ever called Mr. Gaines’s attention to these matters?”

“No: that would have been useless. He has always refused to discuss the condition of the mills with any one but the manager.”

“H’m — that would seem to prove that Mr. Gaines, who lives here, sees as much reason for trusting Truscomb’s judgment as Mr. Westmore, who delegated his authority from a distance.”

Amherst did not take this up, and after a pause Mr. Tredegar went on: “You know, of course, the answers I might make to such an indictment. As a lawyer, I might call your attention to the employé‘s waiver of risk, to the strong chances of contributory negligence, and so on; but happily in this case such arguments are superfluous. You are apparently not aware that Dillon’s injury is much slighter than it ought to be to serve your purpose. Dr. Disbrow has just told us that he will probably get off with the loss of a finger; and I need hardly say that, whatever may have been Dillon’s own share in causing the accident — and as to this, as you admit, opinions differ — Mrs. Westmore will assume all the expenses of his nursing, besides making a liberal gift to his wife.” Mr. Tredegar laid down his cigar and drew forth a silver-mounted note-case. “Here, in fact,” he continued, “is a cheque which she asks you to transmit, and which, as I think you will agree, ought to silence, on your part as well as Mrs. Dillon’s, any criticism of Mrs. Westmore’s dealings with her operatives.”

The blood rose to Amherst’s forehead, and he just restrained himself from pushing back the cheque which Mr. Tredegar had laid on the table between them.

“There is no question of criticizing Mrs. Westmore’s dealings with her operatives — as far as I know, she has had none as yet,” he rejoined, unable to control his voice as completely as his hand. “And the proof of it is the impunity with which her agents deceive her — in this case, for instance, of Dillon’s injury. Dr. Disbrow, who is Mr. Truscomb’s brother-in-law, and apt to be influenced by his views, assures you that the man will get off with the loss of a finger; but some one equally competent to speak told me last night that he would lose not only his hand but his arm.”

Amherst’s voice had swelled to a deep note of anger, and with his tossed hair, and eyes darkening under furrowed brows, he presented an image of revolutionary violence which deepened the disdain on Mr. Tredegar’s lip.

“Some one equally competent to speak? Are you prepared to name this anonymous authority?”

Amherst hesitated. “No — I shall have to ask you to take my word for it,” he returned with a shade of embarrassment.

“Ah — ” Mr. Tredegar murmured, giving to the expressive syllable its utmost measure of decent exultation.

Amherst quivered under the thin lash, and broke out: “It is all you have required of Dr. Disbrow — ” but at this point Mr. Tredegar rose to his feet.

“My dear sir, your resorting to such arguments convinces me that nothing is to be gained by prolonging our talk. I will not even take up your insinuations against two of the most respected men in the community — such charges reflect only on those who make them.”

Amherst, whose flame of anger had subsided with the sudden sense of its futility, received this in silence, and the lawyer, reassured, continued with a touch of condescension: “My only specific charge from Mrs. Westmore was to hand you this cheque; but, in spite of what has passed, I take it upon myself to add, in her behalf, that your conduct of today will not be allowed to weigh against your record at the mills, and that the extraordinary charges you have seen fit to bring against your superiors will — if not repeated — simply be ignored.”

When, the next morning at about ten, Mrs. Eustace Ansell joined herself to the two gentlemen who still lingered over a desultory breakfast in Mrs. Westmore’s dining-room, she responded to their greeting with less than her usual vivacity.

It was one of Mrs. Ansell’s arts to bring to the breakfast-table just the right shade of sprightliness, a warmth subdued by discretion as the early sunlight is tempered by the lingering coolness of night. She was, in short, as fresh, as temperate, as the hour, yet without the concomitant chill which too often marks its human atmosphere: rather her soft effulgence dissipated the morning frosts, opening pinched spirits to a promise of midday warmth. But on this occasion a mist of uncertainty hung on her smile, and veiled the glance which she turned on the contents of the heavy silver dishes successively presented to her notice. When, at the conclusion of this ceremony, the servants had withdrawn, she continued for a moment to stir her tea in silence, while her glance travelled from Mr. Tredegar, sunk in his morning mail, to Mr. Langhope, who leaned back resignedly in his chair, trying to solace himself with Hanaford Banner, till midday should bring him a sight of the metropolitan press.

“I suppose you know,” she said suddenly, “that Bessy has telegraphed for Cicely, and made her arrangements to stay here another week.”

Mr. Langhope’s stick slipped to the floor with the sudden displacement of his whole lounging person, and Mr. Tredegar, removing his tortoise-shell reading-glasses, put them hastily into their case, as though to declare for instant departure.

“My dear Maria — ” Mr. Langhope gasped, while she rose and restored his stick.

“She considers it, then, her duty to wait and see Truscomb?” the lawyer asked; and Mrs. Ansell, regaining her seat, murmured discreetly: “She puts it so — yes.”

“My dear Maria — ” Mr. Langhope repeated helplessly, tossing aside his paper and drawing his chair up to the table.

“But it would be perfectly easy to return: it is quite unnecessary to wait here for his recovery,” Mr. Tredegar pursued, as though setting forth a fact which had not hitherto presented itself to the more limited intelligence of his hearers.

Mr. Langhope emitted a short laugh, and Mrs. Ansell answered gently: “She says she detests the long journey.”

Mr. Tredegar rose and gathered up his letters with a gesture of annoyance. “In that case — if I had been notified earlier of this decision, I might have caught the morning train,” he interrupted himself, glancing resentfully at his watch.

“Oh, don’t leave us, Tredegar,” Mr. Langhope entreated. “We’ll reason with her — we’ll persuade her to go back by the three-forty.”

Mrs. Ansell smiled. “She telegraphed at seven. Cicely and the governess are already on their way.”

“At seven? But, my dear friend, why on earth didn’t you tell us?”

“I didn’t know till a few minutes ago. Bessy called me in as I was coming down.”

“Ah — ” Mr. Langhope murmured, meeting her eyes for a fraction of a second. In the encounter, she appeared to communicate something more than she had spoken, for as he stooped to pick up his paper he said, more easily: “My dear Tredegar, if we’re in a box there’s no reason why we should force you into it too. Ring for Ropes, and we’ll look up a train for you.”

Mr. Tredegar appeared slightly ruffled at this prompt acquiescence in his threatened departure. “Of course, if I had been notified in advance, I might have arranged to postpone my engagements another day; but in any case, it is quite out of the question that I should return in a week — and quite unnecessary,” he added, snapping his lips shut as though he were closing his last portmanteau.

“Oh, quite — quite,” Mr. Langhope assented. “It isn’t, in fact, in the least necessary for any of us either to stay on now or to return. Truscomb could come to Long Island when he recovers, and answer any questions we may have to put; but if Bessy has sent for the child, we must of course put off going for today — at least I must,” he added sighing, “and, though I know it’s out of the question to exact such a sacrifice from you, I have a faint hope that our delightful friend here, with the altruistic spirit of her sex —— ”

“Oh, I shall enjoy it — my maid is unpacking,” Mrs. Ansell gaily affirmed; and Mr. Tredegar, shrugging his shoulders, said curtly: “In that case I will ring for the time-table.”

When he had withdrawn to consult it in the seclusion of the library, and Mrs. Ansell, affecting a sudden desire for a second cup of tea, had reseated herself to await the replenishment of the kettle, Mr. Langhope exchanged his own chair for a place at her side.

“Now what on earth does this mean?” he asked, lighting a cigarette in response to her slight nod of consent.

Mrs. Ansell’s gaze lost itself in the depths of the empty tea-pot.

“A number of things — or any one of them,” she said at length, extending her arm toward the tea-caddy.

“For instance —?” he rejoined, following appreciatively the movements of her long slim hands.

She raised her head and met his eyes. “For instance: it may mean — don’t resent the suggestion — that you and Mr. Tredegar were not quite well-advised in persuading her not to see Mr. Amherst yesterday evening.”

Mr. Langhope uttered an exclamation of surprise.

“But, my dear Maria — in the name of reason . . . why, after the doctor’s visit — after his coming here last night, at Truscomb’s request, to put the actual facts before her — should she have gone over the whole business again with this interfering young fellow? How, in fact, could she have done so,” he added, after vainly waiting for her reply, “without putting a sort of slight on Truscomb, who is, after all, the only person entitled to speak with authority?”

Mrs. Ansell received his outburst in silence, and the butler, reappearing with the kettle and fresh toast, gave her the chance to prolong her pause for a full minute. When the door had closed on him, she said: “Judged by reason, your arguments are unanswerable; but when it comes to a question of feeling —— ”

“Feeling? What kind of feeling? You don’t mean to suggest anything so preposterous as that Bessy ——?”

She made a gesture of smiling protest. “I confess it is to be regretted that his mother is a lady, and that he looks — you must have noticed it? — so amazingly like the portraits of the young Schiller. But I only meant that Bessy forms all her opinions emotionally; and that she must have been very strongly affected by the scene Mr. Tredegar described to us.”

“Ah,” Mr. Langhope interjected, replying first to her parenthesis, “how a woman of your good sense stumbled on that idea of hunting up the mother —!” but Mrs. Ansell answered, with a slight grimace: “My dear Henry, if you could see the house they live in you’d think I had been providentially guided there!” and, reverting to the main issue, he went on fretfully: “But why, after hearing the true version of the facts, should Bessy still be influenced by that sensational scene? Even if it was not, as Tredegar suspects, cooked up expressly to take her in, she must see that the hospital doctor is, after all, as likely as any one to know how the accident really happened, and how seriously the fellow is hurt.”

“There’s the point. Why should Bessy believe Dr. Disbrow rather than Mr. Amherst?”

“For the best of reasons — because Disbrow has nothing to gain by distorting the facts, whereas this young Amherst, as Tredegar pointed out, has the very obvious desire to give Truscomb a bad name and shove himself into his place.”

Mrs. Ansell contemplatively turned the rings upon her fingers. “From what I saw of Amherst I’m inclined to think that, if that is his object, he is too clever to have shown his hand so soon. But if you are right, was there not all the more reason for letting Bessy see him and find out as soon as possible what he was aiming at?”

“If one could have trusted her to find out — but you credit my poor child with more penetration than I’ve ever seen in her.”

“Perhaps you’ve looked for it at the wrong time — and about the wrong things. Bessy has the penetration of the heart.”

“The heart! You make mine jump when you use such expressions.”

“Oh, I use this one in a general sense. But I want to help you to keep it from acquiring a more restricted significance.”

“Restricted — to the young man himself?”

Mrs. Ansell’s expressive hands seemed to commit the question to fate. “All I ask you to consider for the present is that Bessy is quite unoccupied and excessively bored.”

“Bored? Why, she has everything on earth she can want!”

“The ideal state for producing boredom — the only atmosphere in which it really thrives. And besides — to be humanly inconsistent — there’s just one thing she hasn’t got.”

“Well?” Mr. Langhope groaned, fortifying himself with a second cigarette.

“An occupation for that rudimentary little organ, the mention of which makes you jump.”

“There you go again! Good heavens, Maria, do you want to encourage her to fall in love?”

“Not with a man, just at present, but with a hobby, an interest, by all means. If she doesn’t, the man will take the place of the interest — there’s a vacuum to be filled, and human nature abhors a vacuum.”

Mr. Langhope shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t follow you. She adored her husband.”

His friend’s fine smile was like a magnifying glass silently applied to the gross stupidity of his remark. “Oh, I don’t say it was a great passion — but they got on perfectly,” he corrected himself.

“So perfectly that you must expect her to want a little storm and stress for a change. The mere fact that you and Mr. Tredegar objected to her seeing Mr. Amherst last night has roused the spirit of opposition in her. A year ago she hadn’t any spirit of opposition.”

“There was nothing for her to oppose — poor Dick made her life so preposterously easy.”

“My ingenuous friend! Do you still think that’s any reason? The fact is, Bessy wasn’t awake, she wasn’t even born, then. . . . She is now, and you know the infant’s first conscious joy is to smash things.”

“It will be rather an expensive joy if the mills are the first thing she smashes.”

“Oh I imagine the mills are pretty substantial. I should, I own,” Mrs. Ansell smiled, “not object to seeing her try her teeth on them.”

“Which, in terms of practical conduct, means ——?”

“That I advise you not to disapprove of her staying on, or of her investigating the young man’s charges. You must remember that another peculiarity of the infant mind is to tire soonest of the toy that no one tries to take away from it.”

Que diable! But suppose Truscomb turns rusty at this very unusual form of procedure? Perhaps you don’t quite know how completely he represents the prosperity of the mills.”

“All the more reason,” Mrs. Ansell persisted, rising at the sound of Mr. Tredegar’s approach. “For don’t you perceive, my poor distracted friend, that if Truscomb turns rusty, as he undoubtedly will, the inevitable result will be his manager’s dismissal — and that thereafter there will presumably be peace in Warsaw?”

“Ah, you divinely wicked woman!” cried Mr. Langhope, snatching at an appreciative pressure of her hand as the lawyer reappeared in the doorway.

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