Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

VII

AMHERST could never afterward regain a detailed impression of the weeks that followed. They lived in his memory chiefly as exponents of the unforeseen, nothing he had looked for having come to pass in the way or at the time expected; while the whole movement of life was like the noon-day flow of a river, in which the separate ripples of brightness are all merged in one blinding glitter. His recurring conferences with Mrs. Westmore formed, as it were, the small surprising kernel of fact about which sensations gathered and grew with the swift ripening of a magician’s fruit. That she should remain on at Hanaford to look into the condition of the mills did not, in itself, seem surprising to Amherst; for his short phase of doubt had been succeeded by an abundant inflow of faith in her intentions. It satisfied his inner craving for harmony that her face and spirit should, after all, so corroborate and complete each other; that it needed no moral sophistry to adjust her acts to her appearance, her words to the promise of her smile. But her immediate confidence in him, her resolve to support him in his avowed insubordination, to ignore, with the royal license of her sex, all that was irregular and inexpedient in asking his guidance while the whole official strength of the company darkened the background with a gathering storm of disapproval — this sense of being the glove flung by her hand in the face of convention, quickened astonishingly the flow of Amherst’s sensations. It was as though a mountain-climber, braced to the strain of a hard ascent, should suddenly see the way break into roses, and level itself in a path for his feet.

On his second visit he found the two ladies together, and Mrs. Ansell’s smile of approval seemed to cast a social sanction on the episode, to classify it as comfortably usual and unimportant. He could see that her friend’s manner put Bessy at ease, helping her to ask her own questions, and to reflect on his suggestions, with less bewilderment and more self-confidence. Mrs. Ansell had the faculty of restoring to her the belief in her reasoning powers that her father could dissolve in a monosyllable.

The talk, on this occasion, had turned mainly on the future of the Dillon family, on the best means of compensating for the accident, and, incidentally, on the care of the young children of the mill-colony. Though Amherst did not believe in the extremer forms of industrial paternalism, he was yet of opinion that, where married women were employed, the employer should care for their children. He had been gradually, and somewhat reluctantly, brought to this conviction by the many instances of unavoidable neglect and suffering among the children of the women-workers at Westmore; and Mrs. Westmore took up the scheme with all the ardour of her young motherliness, quivering at the thought of hungry or ailing children while her Cicely, leaning a silken head against her, lifted puzzled eyes to her face.

On the larger problems of the case it was less easy to fix Bessy’s attention; but Amherst was far from being one of the extreme theorists who reject temporary remedies lest they defer the day of general renewal, and since he looked on every gain in the material condition of the mill-hands as a step in their moral growth, he was quite willing to hold back his fundamental plans while he discussed the establishment of a nursery, and of a night-school for the boys in the mills.

The third time he called, he found Mr. Langhope and Mr. Halford Gaines of the company. The President of the Westmore mills was a trim middle-sized man, whose high pink varnish of good living would have turned to purple could he have known Mr. Langhope’s opinion of his jewelled shirt-front and the padded shoulders of his evening-coat. Happily he had no inkling of these views, and was fortified in his command of the situation by an unimpaired confidence in his own appearance; while Mr. Langhope, discreetly withdrawn behind a veil of cigar-smoke, let his silence play like a fine criticism over the various phases of the discussion.

It was a surprise to Amherst to find himself in Mr. Gaines’s presence. The President, secluded in his high office, seldom visited the mills, and when there showed no consciousness of any presence lower than Truscomb’s; and Amherst’s first thought was that, in the manager’s enforced absence, he was to be called to account by the head of the firm. But he was affably welcomed by Mr. Gaines, who made it clear that his ostensible purpose in coming was to hear Amherst’s views as to the proposed night-schools and nursery. These were pointedly alluded to as Mrs. Westmore’s projects, and the young man was made to feel that he was merely called in as a temporary adviser in Truscomb’s absence. This was, in fact, the position Amherst preferred to take, and he scrupulously restricted himself to the answering of questions, letting Mrs. Westmore unfold his plans as though they had been her own. “It is much better,” he reflected, “that they should all think so, and she too, for Truscomb will be on his legs again in a day or two, and then my hours will be numbered.”

Meanwhile he was surprised to find Mr. Gaines oddly amenable to the proposed innovations, which he appeared to regard as new fashions in mill-management, to be adopted for the same cogent reasons as a new cut in coat-tails.

“Of course we want to be up-to-date — there’s no reason why the Westmore mills shouldn’t do as well by their people as any mills in the country,” he affirmed, in the tone of the entertainer accustomed to say: “I want the thing done handsomely.” But he seemed even less conscious than Mrs. Westmore that each particular wrong could be traced back to a radical vice in the system. He appeared to think that every murmur of assent to her proposals passed the sponge, once for all, over the difficulty propounded: as though a problem in algebra should be solved by wiping it off the blackboard.

“My dear Bessy, we all owe you a debt of gratitude for coming here, and bringing, so to speak, a fresh eye to bear on the subject. If I’ve been, perhaps, a little too exclusively absorbed in making the mills profitable, my friend Langhope will, I believe, not be the first to — er — cast a stone at me.” Mr. Gaines, who was the soul of delicacy, stumbled a little over the awkward associations connected with this figure, but, picking himself up, hastened on to affirm: “And in that respect, I think we can challenge comparison with any industry in the state; but I am the first to admit that there may be another side, a side that it takes a woman — a mother — to see. For instance,” he threw in jocosely, “I flatter myself that I know how to order a good dinner; but I always leave the flowers to my wife. And if you’ll permit me to say so,” he went on, encouraged by the felicity of his image, “I believe it will produce a most pleasing effect — not only on the operatives themselves, but on the whole of Hanaford — on our own set of people especially — to have you come here and interest yourself in the — er — philanthropic side of the work.”

Bessy coloured a little. She blushed easily, and was perhaps not over-discriminating as to the quality of praise received; but under her ripple of pleasure a stronger feeling stirred, and she said hastily: “I am afraid I never should have thought of these things if Mr. Amherst had not pointed them out to me.”

Mr. Gaines met this blandly. “Very gratifying to Mr. Amherst to have you put it in that way; and I am sure we all appreciate his valuable hints. Truscomb himself could not have been more helpful, though his larger experience will no doubt be useful later on, in developing and — er — modifying your plans.”

It was difficult to reconcile this large view of the moral issue with the existence of abuses which made the management of the Westmore mills as unpleasantly notorious in one section of the community as it was agreeably notable in another. But Amherst was impartial enough to see that Mr. Gaines was unconscious of the incongruities of the situation. He left the reconciling of incompatibles to Truscomb with the simple faith of the believer committing a like task to his maker: it was in the manager’s mind that the dark processes of adjustment took place. Mr. Gaines cultivated the convenient and popular idea that by ignoring wrongs one is not so much condoning as actually denying their existence; and in pursuance of this belief he devoutly abstained from studying the conditions at Westmore.

A farther surprise awaited Amherst when Truscomb reappeared in the office. The manager was always a man of few words; and for the first days his intercourse with his assistant was restricted to asking questions and issuing orders. Soon afterward, it became known that Dillon’s arm was to be amputated, and that afternoon Truscomb was summoned to see Mrs. Westmore. When he returned he sent for Amherst; and the young man felt sure that his hour had come.

He was at dinner when the message reached him, and he knew from the tightening of his mother’s lips that she too interpreted it in the same way. He was glad that Duplain’s presence kept her from speaking her fears; and he thanked her inwardly for the smile with which she watched him go.

That evening, when he returned, the smile was still at its post; but it dropped away wearily as he said, with his hands on her shoulders: “Don’t worry, mother; I don’t know exactly what’s happening, but we’re not blacklisted yet.”

Mrs. Amherst had immediately taken up her work, letting her nervous tension find its usual escape through her finger-tips. Her needles flagged as she lifted her eyes to his.

“Something is happening, then?” she murmured.

“Oh, a number of things, evidently — but though I’m in the heart of them, I can’t yet make out how they are going to affect me.”

His mother’s glance twinkled in time with the flash of her needles. “There’s always a safe place in the heart of a storm,” she said shrewdly; and Amherst rejoined with a laugh: “Well, if it’s Truscomb’s heart, I don’t know that it’s particularly safe for me.”

“Tell me just what he said, John,” she begged, making no attempt to carry the pleasantry farther, though its possibilities still seemed to flicker about her lip; and Amherst proceeded to recount his talk with the manager.

Truscomb, it appeared, had made no allusion to Dillon; his avowed purpose in summoning his assistant had been to discuss with the latter the question of the proposed nursery and schools. Mrs. Westmore, at Amherst’s suggestion, had presented these projects as her own; but the question of a site having come up, she had mentioned to Truscomb his assistant’s proposal that the company should buy for the purpose the notorious Eldorado. The road-house in question had always been one of the most destructive influences in the mill-colony, and Amherst had made one or two indirect attempts to have the building converted to other uses; but the persistent opposition he encountered gave colour to the popular report that the manager took a high toll from the landlord.

It therefore at once occurred to Amherst to suggest the purchase of the property to Mrs. Westmore; and he was not surprised to find that Truscomb’s opposition to the scheme centred in the choice of the building. But even at this point the manager betrayed no open resistance; he seemed tacitly to admit Amherst’s right to discuss the proposed plans, and even to be consulted concerning the choice of a site. He was ready with a dozen good reasons against the purchase of the road-house; but here also he proceeded with a discretion unexampled in his dealings with his subordinates. He acknowledged the harm done by the dance-hall, but objected that he could not conscientiously advise the company to pay the extortionate price at which it was held, and reminded Amherst that, if that particular source of offense were removed, others would inevitably spring up to replace it; marshalling the usual temporizing arguments of tolerance and expediency, with no marked change from his usual tone, till, just as the interview was ending, he asked, with a sudden drop to conciliation, if the assistant manager had anything to complain of in the treatment he received.

This came as such a surprise to Amherst that before he had collected himself he found Truscomb ambiguously but unmistakably offering him — with the practised indirection of the man accustomed to cover his share in such transactions — a substantial “consideration” for dropping the matter of the road-house. It was incredible, yet it had really happened: the all-powerful Truscomb, who held Westmore in the hollow of his hand, had stooped to bribing his assistant because he was afraid to deal with him in a more summary manner. Amherst’s leap of anger at the offer was curbed by the instant perception of its cause. He had no time to search for a reason; he could only rally himself to meet the unintelligible with a composure as abysmal as Truscomb’s; and his voice still rang with the wonder of the incident as he retailed it to his mother.

“Think of what it means, mother, for a young woman like Mrs. Westmore, without any experience or any habit of authority, to come here, and at the first glimpse of injustice, to be so revolted that she finds the courage and cleverness to put her little hand to the machine and reverse the engines — for it’s nothing less that she’s done! Oh, I know there’ll be a reaction — the pendulum’s sure to swing back: but you’ll see it won’t swing as far. Of course I shall go in the end — but Truscomb may go too: Jove, if I could pull him down on me, like what’s-his-name and the pillars of the temple!”

He had risen and was measuring the little sitting-room with his long strides, his head flung back and his eyes dark with the inward look his mother had not always cared to see there. But now her own glance seemed to have caught a ray from his, and the knitting flowed from her hands like the thread of fate, as she sat silent, letting him exhale his hopes and his wonder, and murmuring only, when he dropped again to the chair at her side: “You won’t go, Johnny — you won’t go.”

Mrs. Westmore lingered on for over two weeks, and during that time Amherst was able, in various directions, to develop her interest in the mill-workers. His own schemes involved a complete readjustment of the relation between the company and the hands: the suppression of the obsolete company “store” and tenements, which had so long sapped the thrift and ambition of the workers; the transformation of the Hopewood grounds into a park and athletic field, and the division of its remaining acres into building lots for the mill-hands; the establishing of a library, a dispensary and emergency hospital, and various other centres of humanizing influence; but he refrained from letting her see that his present suggestion was only a part of this larger plan, lest her growing sympathy should be checked. He had in his mother an example of the mind accessible only to concrete impressions: the mind which could die for the particular instance, yet remain serenely indifferent to its causes. To Mrs. Amherst, her son’s work had been interesting simply because it was his work: remove his presence from Westmore, and the whole industrial problem became to her as non-existent as star-dust to the naked eye. And in Bessy Westmore he divined a nature of the same quality — divined, but no longer criticized it. Was not that concentration on the personal issue just the compensating grace of her sex? Did it not offer a warm tint of human inconsistency to eyes chilled by contemplating life in the mass? It pleased Amherst for the moment to class himself with the impersonal student of social problems, though in truth his interest in them had its source in an imagination as open as Bessy’s to the pathos of the personal appeal. But if he had the same sensitiveness, how inferior were his means of expressing it! Again and again, during their talks, he had the feeling which had come to him when she bent over Dillon’s bed — that her exquisite lines were, in some mystical sense, the visible flowering of her nature, that they had taken shape in response to the inward motions of the heart.

To a young man ruled by high enthusiasms there can be no more dazzling adventure than to work this miracle in the tender creature who yields her mind to his — to see, as it were, the blossoming of the spiritual seed in forms of heightened loveliness, the bluer beam of the eye, the richer curve of the lip, all the physical currents of life quickening under the breath of a kindled thought. It did not occur to him that any other emotion had effected the change he perceived. Bessy Westmore had in full measure that gift of unconscious hypocrisy which enables a woman to make the man in whom she is interested believe that she enters into all his thoughts. She had — more than this — the gift of self-deception, supreme happiness of the unreflecting nature, whereby she was able to believe herself solely engrossed in the subjects they discussed, to regard him as the mere spokesman of important ideas, thus saving their intercourse from present constraint, and from the awkward contemplation of future contingencies. So, in obedience to the ancient sorcery of life, these two groped for and found each other in regions seemingly so remote from the accredited domain of romance that it would have been as a great surprise to them to learn whither they had strayed as to see the arid streets of Westmore suddenly bursting into leaf.

With Mrs. Westmore’s departure Amherst, for the first time, became aware of a certain flatness in his life. His daily task seemed dull and purposeless, and he was galled by Truscomb’s studied forbearance, under which he suspected a quickly accumulating store of animosity. He almost longed for some collision which would release the manager’s pent-up resentment; yet he dreaded increasingly any accident that might make his stay at Westmore impossible.

It was on Sundays, when he was freed from his weekly task, that he was most at the mercy of these opposing feelings. They drove him forth on long solitary walks beyond the town, walks ending most often in the deserted grounds of Hopewood, beautiful now in the ruined gold of October. As he sat under the beech-limbs above the river, watching its brown current sweep the willow-roots of the banks, he thought how this same current, within its next short reach, passed from wooded seclusion to the noise and pollution of the mills. So his own life seemed to have passed once more from the tranced flow of the last weeks into its old channel of unillumined labour. But other thoughts came to him too: the vision of converting that melancholy pleasure-ground into an outlet for the cramped lives of the mill-workers; and he pictured the weed-grown lawns and paths thronged with holiday-makers, and the slopes nearer the factories dotted with houses and gardens.

An unexpected event revived these hopes. A few days before Christmas it became known to Hanaford that Mrs. Westmore would return for the holidays. Cicely was drooping in town air, and Bessy had persuaded Mr. Langhope that the bracing cold of Hanaford would be better for the child than the milder atmosphere of Long Island. They reappeared, and brought with them a breath of holiday cheerfulness such as Westmore had never known. It had always been the rule at the mills to let the operatives take their pleasure as they saw fit, and the Eldorado and the Hanaford saloons throve on this policy. But Mrs. Westmore arrived full of festal projects. There was to be a giant Christmas tree for the mill-children, a supper on the same scale for the operatives, and a bout of skating and coasting at Hopewood for the older lads — the “band” and “bobbin” boys in whom Amherst had always felt a special interest. The Gaines ladies, resolved to show themselves at home in the latest philanthropic fashions, actively seconded Bessy’s endeavours, and for a week Westmore basked under a sudden heat-wave of beneficence.

The time had passed when Amherst might have made light of such efforts. With Bessy Westmore smiling up, holly-laden, from the foot of the ladder on which she kept him perched, how could he question the efficacy of hanging the opening-room with Christmas wreaths, or the ultimate benefit of gorging the operatives with turkey and sheathing their offspring in red mittens? It was just like the end of a story-book with a pretty moral, and Amherst was in the mood to be as much taken by the tinsel as the youngest mill-baby held up to gape at the tree.

At the New Year, when Mrs. Westmore left, the negotiations for the purchase of the Eldorado were well advanced, and it was understood that on their completion she was to return for the opening of the night-school and nursery. Suddenly, however, it became known that the proprietor of the road-house had decided not to sell. Amherst heard of the decision from Duplain, and at once foresaw the inevitable result — that Mrs. Westmore’s plan would be given up owing to the difficulty of finding another site. Mr. Gaines and Truscomb had both discountenanced the erection of a special building for what was, after all, only a tentative enterprise. Among the purchasable houses in Westmore no other was suited to the purpose, and they had, therefore, a good excuse for advising Bessy to defer her experiment.

Almost at the same time, however, another piece of news changed the aspect of affairs. A scandalous occurrence at the Eldorado, witnesses to which were unexpectedly forthcoming, put it in Amherst’s power to threaten the landlord with exposure unless he should at once accept the company’s offer and withdraw from Westmore. Amherst had no long time to consider the best means of putting this threat into effect. He knew it was not only idle to appeal to Truscomb, but essential to keep the facts from him till the deed was done; yet how obtain the authority to act without him? The seemingly insuperable difficulties of the situation whetted Amherst’s craving for a struggle. He thought first of writing to Mrs. Westmore;, but now that the spell of her presence was withdrawn he felt how hard it would be to make her understand the need of prompt and secret action; and besides, was it likely that, at such short notice, she could command the needful funds? Prudence opposed the attempt, and on reflection he decided to appeal to Mr. Gaines, hoping that the flagrancy of the case would rouse the President from his usual attitude of indifference.

Mr. Gaines was roused to the extent of showing a profound resentment against the cause of his disturbance. He relieved his sense of responsibility by some didactic remarks on the vicious tendencies of the working-classes, and concluded with the reflection that the more you did for them the less thanks you got. But when Amherst showed an unwillingness to let the matter rest on this time-honoured aphorism, the President retrenched himself behind ambiguities, suggestions that they should await Mrs. Westmore’s return, and general considerations of a pessimistic nature, tapering off into a gloomy view of the weather.

“By God, I’ll write to her!” Amherst exclaimed, as the Gaines portals closed on him; and all the way back to Westmore he was busy marshalling his arguments and entreaties.

He wrote the letter that night, but did not post it. Some unavowed distrust of her restrained him — a distrust not of her heart but of her intelligence. He felt that the whole future of Westmore was at stake, and decided to await the development of the next twenty-four hours. The letter was still in his pocket when, after dinner, he was summoned to the office by Truscomb.

That evening, when he returned home, he entered the little sitting-room without speaking. His mother sat there alone, in her usual place — how many nights he had seen the lamplight slant at that particular angle across her fresh cheek and the fine wrinkles about her eyes! He was going to add another wrinkle to the number now — soon they would creep down and encroach upon the smoothness of the cheek.

She looked up and saw that his glance was turned to the crowded bookshelves behind her.

“There must be nearly a thousand of them,” he said as their eyes met.

“Books? Yes — with your father’s. Why — were you thinking . . .?” She started up suddenly and crossed over to him.

“Too many for wanderers,” he continued, drawing her hands to his breast; then, as she clung to him, weeping and trembling a little: “It had to be, mother,” he said, kissing her penitently where the fine wrinkles died into the cheek.

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