Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

VI

BEFORE daylight that same morning Amherst, dressing by the gas-flame above his cheap wash-stand, strove to bring some order into his angry thoughts. It humbled him to feel his purpose tossing rudderless on unruly waves of emotion, yet strive as he would he could not regain a hold on it. The events of the last twenty-four hours had been too rapid and unexpected for him to preserve his usual clear feeling of mastery; and he had, besides, to reckon with the first complete surprise of his senses. His way of life had excluded him from all contact with the subtler feminine influences, and the primitive side of the relation left his imagination untouched. He was therefore the more assailable by those refined forms of the ancient spell that lurk in delicacy of feeling interpreted by loveliness of face. By his own choice he had cut himself off from all possibility of such communion; had accepted complete abstinence for that part of his nature which might have offered a refuge from the stern prose of his daily task. But his personal indifference to his surroundings — deliberately encouraged as a defiance to the attractions of the life he had renounced — proved no defence against this appeal; rather, the meanness of his surroundings combined with his inherited refinement of taste to deepen the effect of Bessy’s charm.

As he reviewed the incidents of the past hours, a reaction of self-derision came to his aid. What was this exquisite opportunity from which he had cut himself off? What, to reduce the question to a personal issue, had Mrs. Westmore said or done that, on the part of a plain woman, would have quickened his pulses by the least fraction of a second? Why, it was only the old story of the length of Cleopatra’s nose! Because her eyes were a heavenly vehicle for sympathy, because her voice was pitched to thrill the tender chords, he had been deluded into thinking that she understood and responded to his appeal. And her own emotions had been wrought upon by means as cheap: it was only the obvious, theatrical side of the incident that had affected her. If Dillon’s wife had been old and ugly, would she have been clasped to her employer’s bosom? A more expert knowledge of the sex would have told Amherst that such ready sympathy is likely to be followed by as prompt a reaction of indifference. Luckily Mrs. Westmore’s course had served as a corrective for his lack of experience; she had even, as it appeared, been at some pains to hasten the process of disillusionment. This timely discipline left him blushing at his own insincerity; for he now saw that he had risked his future not because of his zeal for the welfare of the mill-hands, but because Mrs. Westmore’s look was like sunshine on his frozen senses, and because he was resolved, at any cost, to arrest her attention, to associate himself with her by the only means in his power.

Well, he deserved to fail with such an end in view; and the futility of his scheme was matched by the vanity of his purpose. In the cold light of disenchantment it seemed as though he had tried to build an impregnable fortress out of nursery blocks. How could he have foreseen anything but failure for so preposterous an attempt? His breach of discipline would of course be reported at once to Mr. Gaines and Truscomb; and the manager, already jealous of his assistant’s popularity with the hands, which was a tacit criticism of his own methods, would promptly seize the pretext to be rid of him. Amherst was aware that only his technical efficiency, and his knack of getting the maximum of work out of the operatives, had secured him from Truscomb’s animosity. From the outset there had been small sympathy between the two; but the scarcity of competent and hard-working assistants had made Truscomb endure him for what he was worth to the mills. Now, however, his own folly had put the match to the manager’s smouldering dislike, and he saw himself, in consequence, discharged and black-listed, and perhaps roaming for months in quest of a job. He knew the efficiency of that far-reaching system of defamation whereby the employers of labour pursue and punish the subordinate who incurs their displeasure. In the case of a mere operative this secret persecution often worked complete ruin; and even to a man of Amherst’s worth it opened the dispiriting prospect of a long struggle for rehabilitation.

Deep down, he suffered most at the thought that his blow for the operatives had failed; but on the surface it was the manner of his failure that exasperated him. For it seemed to prove him unfit for the very work to which he was drawn: that yearning to help the world forward that, in some natures, sets the measure to which the personal adventure must keep step. Amherst had hitherto felt himself secured by his insight and self-control from the emotional errors besetting the way of the enthusiast; and behold, he had stumbled into the first sentimental trap in his path, and tricked his eyes with a Christmas-chromo vision of lovely woman dispensing coals and blankets! Luckily, though such wounds to his self-confidence cut deep, he could apply to them the antiseptic of an unfailing humour; and before he had finished dressing, the picture of his wide schemes of social reform contracting to a blue-eyed philanthropy of cheques and groceries, had provoked a reaction of laughter. Perhaps the laughter came too soon, and rang too loud, to be true to the core; but at any rate it healed the edges of his hurt, and gave him a sound surface of composure.

But he could not laugh away the thought of the trials to which his intemperance had probably exposed his mother; and when, at the breakfast-table, from which Duplain had already departed, she broke into praise of their visitor, it was like a burning irritant on his wound.

“What a face, John! Of course I don’t often see people of that kind now — ” the words, falling from her too simply to be reproachful, wrung him, for that, all the more — “but I’m sure that kind of soft loveliness is rare everywhere; like a sweet summer morning with the mist on it. The Gaines girls, now, are my idea of the modern type; very handsome, of course, but you see just how handsome the first minute. I like a story that keeps one wondering till the end. It was very kind of Maria Ansell,” Mrs. Amherst wandered happily on, “to come and hunt me out yesterday, and I enjoyed our quiet talk about old times. But what I liked best was seeing Mrs. Westmore — and, oh, John, if she came to live here, what a benediction to the mills!”

Amherst was silent, moved most of all by the unimpaired simplicity of heart with which his mother could take up past relations, and open her meagre life to the high visitations of grace and fashion, without a tinge of self-consciousness or apology. “I shall never be as genuine as that,” he thought, remembering how he had wished to have Mrs. Westmore know that he was of her own class. How mixed our passions are, and how elastic must be the word that would cover any one of them! Amherst’s, at that moment, were all stained with the deep wound to his self-love.

The discolouration he carried in his eye made the mill-village seem more than commonly cheerless and ugly as he walked over to the office after breakfast. Beyond the grim roof-line of the factories a dazzle of rays sent upward from banked white clouds the promise of another brilliant day; and he reflected that Mrs. Westmore would soon be speeding home to the joy of a gallop over the plains.

Far different was the task that awaited him — yet it gave him a pang to think that he might be performing it for the last time. In spite of Mr. Tredegar’s assurances, he was certain that the report of his conduct must by this time have reached the President, and been transmitted to Truscomb; the latter was better that morning, and the next day he would doubtless call his rebellious assistant to account. Amherst, meanwhile, took up his routine with a dull heart. Even should his offense be condoned, his occupation presented, in itself, little future to a man without money or powerful connections. Money! He had spurned the thought of it in choosing his work, yet he now saw that, without its aid, he was powerless to accomplish the object to which his personal desires had been sacrificed. His love of his craft had gradually been merged in the larger love for his fellow-workers, and in the resulting desire to lift and widen their lot. He had once fancied that this end might be attained by an internal revolution in the management of the Westmore mills; that he might succeed in creating an industrial object-lesson conspicuous enough to point the way to wiser law-making and juster relations between the classes. But the last hours’ experiences had shown him how vain it was to assault single-handed the strong barrier between money and labour, and how his own dash at the breach had only thrust him farther back into the obscure ranks of the stragglers. It was, after all, only through politics that he could return successfully to the attack; and financial independence was the needful preliminary to a political career. If he had stuck to the law he might, by this time, have been nearer his goal; but then the gold might not have mattered, since it was only by living among the workers that he had learned to care for their fate. And rather than have forfeited that poignant yet mighty vision of the onward groping of the mass, rather than have missed the widening of his own nature that had come through sharing their hopes and pains, he would still have turned from the easier way, have chosen the deeper initiation rather than the readier attainment.

But this philosophic view of the situation was a mere thread of light on the farthest verge of his sky: much nearer were the clouds of immediate care, amid which his own folly, and his mother’s possible suffering from it, loomed darkest; and these considerations made him resolve that, if his insubordination were overlooked, he would swallow the affront of a pardon, and continue for the present in the mechanical performance of his duties. He had just brought himself to this leaden state of acquiescence when one of the clerks in the outer office thrust his head in to say: “A lady asking for you — ” and looking up, Amherst beheld Bessy Westmore.

She came in alone, with an air of high self-possession in marked contrast to her timidity and indecision of the previous day. Amherst thought she looked taller, more majestic; so readily may the upward slant of a soft chin, the firmer line of yielding brows, add a cubit to the outward woman. Her aspect was so commanding that he fancied she had come to express her disapproval of his conduct, to rebuke him for lack of respect to Mr. Tredegar; but a moment later it became clear, even to his inexperienced perceptions, that it was not to himself that her challenge was directed.

She advanced toward the seat he had moved forward, but in her absorption forgot to seat herself, and stood with her clasped hands resting on the back of the chair.

“I have come back to talk to you,” she began, in her sweet voice with its occasional quick lift of appeal. “I knew that, in Mr. Truscomb’s absence, it would be hard for you to leave the mills, and there are one or two things I want you to explain before I go away — some of the things, for instance, that you spoke to Mr. Tredegar about last night.”

Amherst’s feeling of constraint returned. “I’m afraid I expressed myself badly; I may have annoyed him — ” he began.

She smiled this away, as though irrelevant to the main issue. “Perhaps you don’t quite understand each other — but I am sure you can make it clear to me.” She sank into the chair, resting one arm on the edge of the desk behind which he had resumed his place. “That is the reason why I came alone,” she continued. “I never can understand when a lot of people are trying to tell me a thing all at once. And I don’t suppose I care as much as a man would — a lawyer especially — about the forms that ought to be observed. All I want is to find out what is wrong and how to remedy it.”

Her blue eyes met Amherst’s in a look that flowed like warmth about his heart. How should he have doubted that her feelings were as exquisite as her means of expressing them? The iron bands of distrust were loosened from his spirit, and he blushed for his cheap scepticism of the morning. In a woman so evidently nurtured in dependence, whose views had been formed, and her actions directed, by the most conventional influences, the mere fact of coming alone to Westmore, in open defiance of her advisers, bespoke a persistence of purpose that put his doubts to shame.

“It will make a great difference to the people here if you interest yourself in them,” he rejoined. “I tried to explain to Mr. Tredegar that I had no wish to criticise the business management of the mills — even if there had been any excuse for my doing so — but that I was sure the condition of the operatives could be very much improved, without permanent harm to the business, by any one who felt a personal sympathy for them; and in the end I believe such sympathy produces better work, and so benefits the employer materially.”

She listened with her gentle look of trust, as though committing to him, with the good faith of a child, her ignorance, her credulity, her little rudimentary convictions and her little tentative aspirations, relying on him not to abuse or misdirect them in the boundless supremacy of his masculine understanding.

“That is just what I want you to explain to me,” she said. “But first I should like to know more about the poor man who was hurt. I meant to see his wife yesterday, but Mr. Gaines told me she would be at work till six, and it would have been difficult to go after that. I did go to the hospital; but the man was sleeping — is Dillon his name? — and the matron told us he was much better. Dr. Disbrow came in the evening and said the same thing — told us it was all a false report about his having been so badly hurt, and that Mr. Truscomb was very much annoyed when he heard of your having said, before the operatives, that Dillon would lose his arm.”

Amherst smiled. “Ah — Mr. Truscomb heard that? Well, he’s right to be annoyed: I ought not to have said it when I did. But unfortunately I am not the only one to be punished. The operative who tied on the black cloth was dismissed this morning.”

Mrs. Westmore flamed up. “Dismissed for that? Oh, how unjust — how cruel!”

“You must look at both sides of the case,” said Amherst, finding it much easier to remain temperate in the glow he had kindled than if he had had to force his own heat into frozen veins. “Of course any act of insubordination must be reprimanded — but I think a reprimand would have been enough.”

It gave him an undeniable throb of pleasure to find that she was not to be checked by such arguments. “But he shall be put back — I won’t have any one discharged for such a reason! You must find him for me at once — you must tell him —— ”

Once more Amherst gently restrained her. “If you’ll forgive my saying so, I think it is better to let him go, and take his chance of getting work elsewhere. If he were taken back he might be made to suffer. As things are organized here, the hands are very much at the mercy of the overseers, and the overseer in that room would be likely to make it uncomfortable for a hand who had so openly defied him.”

With a heavy sigh she bent her puzzled brows on him. “How complicated it is! I wonder if I shall ever understand it all. You don’t think Dillon’s accident was his own fault, then?”

“Certainly not; there are too many cards in that room. I pointed out the fact to Mr. Truscomb when the new machines were set up three years ago. An operative may be ever so expert with his fingers, and yet not learn to measure his ordinary movements quite as accurately as if he were an automaton; and that is what a man must do to be safe in the carding-room.”

She sighed again. “The more you tell me, the more difficult it all seems. Why is the carding-room so over-crowded?”

“To make it pay better,” Amherst returned bluntly; and the colour flushed her sensitive skin.

He thought she was about to punish him for his plain-speaking; but she went on after a pause: “What you say is dreadful. Each thing seems to lead back to another — and I feel so ignorant of it all.” She hesitated again, and then said, turning her bluest glance on him: “I am going to be quite frank with you, Mr. Amherst. Mr. Tredegar repeated to me what you said to him last night, and I think he was annoyed that you were unwilling to give any proof of the charges you made.”

“Charges? Ah,” Amherst exclaimed, with a start of recollection, “he means my refusing to say who told me that Dr. Disbrow was not telling the truth about Dillon?”

“Yes. He said that was a very grave accusation to make, and that no one should have made it without being able to give proof.”

“That is quite true, theoretically. But in this case it would be easy for you or Mr. Tredegar to find out whether I was right.”

“But Mr. Tredegar said you refused to say who told you.”

“I was bound to, as it happened. But I am not bound to prevent your trying to get the same information.”

“Ah — ” she murmured understandingly; and, a sudden thought striking him, he went on, with a glance at the clock: “If you really wish to judge for yourself, why not go to the hospital now? I shall be free in five minutes, and could go with you if you wish it.”

Amherst had remembered the nurse’s cry of recognition when she saw Mrs. Westmore’s face under the street-lamp; and it immediately occurred to him that, if the two women had really known each other, Mrs. Westmore would have no difficulty in obtaining the information she wanted; while, even if they met as strangers, the dark-eyed girl’s perspicacity might still be trusted to come to their aid. It remained only to be seen how Mrs. Westmore would take his suggestion; but some instinct was already telling him that the highhanded method was the one she really preferred.

“To the hospital — now? I should like it of all things,” she exclaimed, rising with what seemed an almost childish zest in the adventure. “Of course that is the best way of finding out. I ought to have insisted on seeing Dillon yesterday — but I begin to think the matron didn’t want me to.”

Amherst left this inference to work itself out in her mind, contenting himself, as they drove back to Hanaford, with answering her questions about Dillon’s family, the ages of his children, and his wife’s health. Her enquiries, he noticed, did not extend from the particular to the general: her curiosity, as yet, was too purely personal and emotional to lead to any larger consideration of the question. But this larger view might grow out of the investigation of Dillon’s case; and meanwhile Amherst’s own purposes were momentarily lost in the sweet confusion of feeling her near him — of seeing the exquisite grain of her skin, the way her lashes grew out of a dusky line on the edge of the white lids, the way her hair, stealing in spirals of light from brow to ear, wavered off into a fruity down on the edge of the cheek.

At the hospital they were protestingly admitted by Mrs. Ogan, though the official “visitors’ hour” was not till the afternoon; and beside the sufferer’s bed, Amherst saw again that sudden flowering of compassion which seemed the key to his companion’s beauty: as though her lips had been formed for consolation and her hands for tender offices. It was clear enough that Dillon, still sunk in a torpor broken by feverish tossings, was making no perceptible progress toward recovery; and Mrs. Ogan was reduced to murmuring some technical explanation about the state of the wound while Bessy hung above him with reassuring murmurs as to his wife’s fate, and promises that the children should be cared for.

Amherst had noticed, on entering, that a new nurse — a gaping young woman instantly lost in the study of Mrs. Westmore’s toilet — had replaced the dark-eyed attendant of the day before; and supposing that the latter was temporarily off duty, he asked Mrs. Ogan if she might be seen.

The matron’s face was a picture of genteel perplexity. “The other nurse? Our regular surgical nurse, Miss Golden, is ill — Miss Hibbs, here, is replacing her for the present.” She indicated the gaping damsel; then, as Amherst persisted: “Ah,” she wondered negligently, “do you mean the young lady you saw here yesterday? Certainly — I had forgotten: Miss Brent was merely a — er — temporary substitute. I believe she was recommended to Dr. Disbrow by one of his patients; but we found her quite unsuitable — in fact, unfitted — and the doctor discharged her this morning.”

Mrs. Westmore had drawn near, and while the matron delivered her explanation, with an uneasy sorting and shifting of words, a quick signal of intelligence passed between her hearers. “You see?” Amherst’s eyes exclaimed; “I see — they have sent her away because she told you,” Bessy’s flashed back in wrath, and his answering look did not deny her inference.

“Do you know where she has gone?” Amherst enquired; but Mrs. Ogan, permitting her brows a faint lift of surprise, replied that she had no idea of Miss Brent’s movements, beyond having heard that she was to leave Hanaford immediately

In the carriage Bessy exclaimed: “It was the nurse, of course — if we could only find her! Brent — did Mrs. Ogan say her name was Brent?”

“Do you know the name?”

“Yes — at least — but it couldn’t, of course, be the girl I knew —— ”

“Miss Brent saw you the night you arrived, and thought she recognized you. She said you and she had been at some school or convent together.”

“The Sacred Heart? Then it is Justine Brent! I heard they had lost their money — I haven’t seen her for years. But how strange that she should be a hospital nurse! And why is she at Hanaford, I wonder?”

“She was here only on a visit; she didn’t tell me where she lived. She said she heard that a surgical nurse was wanted at the hospital, and volunteered her services; I’m afraid she got small thanks for them.”

“Do you really think they sent her away for talking to you? How do you suppose they found out?”

“I waited for her last night when she left the hospital, and I suppose Mrs. Ogan or one of the doctors saw us. It was thoughtless of me,” Amherst exclaimed with compunction.

“I wish I had seen her — poor Justine! We were the greatest friends at the convent. She was the ringleader in all our mischief — I never saw any one so quick and clever. I suppose her fun is all gone now.”

For a moment Mrs. Westmore’s mind continued to linger among her memories; then she reverted to the question of the Dillons, and of what might best be done for them if Miss Brent’s fears should be realized.

As the carriage neared her door she turned to her companion with extended hand. “Thank you so much, Mr. Amherst. I am glad you suggested that Mr. Truscomb should find some work for Dillon about the office. But I must talk to you about this again — can you come in this evening?”

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