Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

VIII

AMHERST’S dismissal was not to take effect for a month; and in the interval he addressed himself steadily to his task.

He went through the routine of the work numbly; but his intercourse with the hands tugged at deep fibres of feelings. He had always shared, as far as his duties allowed, in the cares and interests of their few free hours: the hours when the automatic appendages of the giant machine became men and women again, with desires and passions of their own. Under Amherst’s influence the mixed elements of the mill-community had begun to crystallize into social groups: his books had served as an improvised lending-library, he had organized a club, a rudimentary orchestra, and various other means of binding together the better spirits of the community. With the older men, the attractions of the Eldorado, and kindred inducements, often worked against him; but among the younger hands, and especially the boys, he had gained a personal ascendency that it was bitter to relinquish.

It was the severing of this tie that cost him most pain in the final days at Westmore; and after he had done what he could to console his mother, and to put himself in the way of getting work elsewhere, he tried to see what might be saved out of the ruins of the little polity he had built up. He hoped his influence might at least persist in the form of an awakened instinct of fellowship; and he gave every spare hour to strengthening the links he had tried to form. The boys, at any rate, would be honestly sorry to have him go: not, indeed, from the profounder reasons that affected him, but because he had not only stood persistently between the overseers and themselves, but had recognized their right to fun after work-hours as well as their right to protection while they worked.

In the glow of Mrs. Westmore’s Christmas visitation an athletic club had been formed, and leave obtained to use the Hopewood grounds for Saturday afternoon sports; and thither Amherst continued to conduct the boys after the mills closed at the week-end. His last Saturday had now come: a shining afternoon of late February, with a red sunset bending above frozen river and slopes of unruffled snow. For an hour or more he had led the usual sports, coasting down the steep descent from the house to the edge of the woods, and skating and playing hockey on the rough river-ice which eager hands kept clear after every snow-storm. He always felt the contagion of these sports: the glow of movement, the tumult of young voices, the sting of the winter air, roused all the boyhood in his blood. But today he had to force himself through his part in the performance. To the very last, as he now saw, he had hoped for a sign in the heavens: not the reversal of his own sentence — for, merely on disciplinary grounds, he perceived that to be impossible — but something pointing to a change in the management of the mills, some proof that Mrs. Westmore’s intervention had betokened more than a passing impulse of compassion. Surely she would not accept without question the abandonment of her favourite scheme; and if she came back to put the question, the answer would lay bare the whole situation. . . . So Amherst’s hopes had persuaded him; but the day before he had heard that she was to sail for Europe. The report, first announced in the papers, had been confirmed by his mother, who brought back from a visit to Hanaford the news that Mrs. Westmore was leaving at once for an indefinite period, and that the Hanaford house was to be closed. Irony would have been the readiest caustic for the wound inflicted; but Amherst, for that very reason, disdained it. He would not taint his disappointment with mockery, but would leave it among the unspoiled sadnesses of life. . . .

He flung himself into the boys’ sports with his usual energy, meaning that their last Saturday with him should be their merriest; but he went through his part mechanically, and was glad when the sun began to dip toward the rim of the woods.

He was standing on the ice, where the river widened just below the house, when a jingle of bells broke on the still air, and he saw a sleigh driven rapidly up the avenue. Amherst watched it in surprise. Who, at that hour, could be invading the winter solitude of Hopewood? The sleigh halted near the closed house, and a muffled figure, alighting alone, began to move down the snowy slope toward the skaters.

In an instant he had torn off his skates and was bounding up the bank. He would have known the figure anywhere — known that lovely poise of the head, the mixture of hesitancy and quickness in the light tread which even the snow could not impede. Half-way up the slope to the house they met, and Mrs. Westmore held out her hand. Face and lips, as she stood above him, glowed with her swift passage through the evening air, and in the blaze of the sunset she seemed saturated with heavenly fires.

“I drove out to find you — they told me you were here — I arrived this morning, quite suddenly. . . . ”

She broke off, as though the encounter had checked her ardour instead of kindling it; but he drew no discouragement from her tone.

“I hoped you would come before I left — I knew you would!” he exclaimed; and at his last words her face clouded anxiously.

“I didn’t know you were leaving Westmore till yesterday — the day before — I got a letter. . . . ” Again she wavered, perceptibly trusting her difficulty to him, in the sweet way he had been trying to forget; and he answered with recovered energy: “The great thing is that you should be here.”

She shook her head at his optimism. “What can I do if you go?”

“You can give me a chance, before I go, to tell you a little about some of the loose ends I am leaving.”

“But why are you leaving them? I don’t understand. Is it inevitable?”

“Inevitable,” he returned, with an odd glow of satisfaction in the word; and as her eyes besought him, he added, smiling: “I’ve been dismissed, you see; and from the manager’s standpoint I think I deserved it. But the best part of my work needn’t go with me — and that is what I should like to speak to you about. As assistant manager I can easily be replaced — have been, I understand, already; but among these boys here I should like to think that a little of me stayed — and it will, if you’ll let me tell you what I’ve been doing.”

She glanced away from him at the busy throng on the ice and at the other black cluster above the coasting-slide.

“How they’re enjoying it!” she murmured. “What a pity it was never done before! And who will keep it up when you’re gone?”

“You,” he answered, meeting her eyes again; and as she coloured a little under his look he went on quickly: “Will you come over and look at the coasting? The time is almost up. One more slide and they’ll be packing off to supper.”

She nodded “yes,” and they walked in silence over the white lawn, criss-crossed with tramplings of happy feet, to the ridge from which the coasters started on their run. Amherst’s object in turning the talk had been to gain a moment’s respite. He could not bear to waste his perfect hour in futile explanations: he wanted to keep it undisturbed by any thought of the future. And the same feeling seemed to possess his companion, for she did not speak again till they reached the knoll where the boys were gathered.

A sled packed with them hung on the brink: with a last shout it was off, dipping down the incline with the long curved flight of a swallow, flashing across the wide meadow at the base of the hill, and tossed upward again by its own impetus, till it vanished in the dark rim of wood on the opposite height. The lads waiting on the knoll sang out for joy, and Bessy clapped her hands and joined with them.

“What fun! I wish I’d brought Cicely! I’ve not coasted for years,” she laughed out, as the second detachment of boys heaped themselves on another sled and shot down. Amherst looked at her with a smile. He saw that every other feeling had vanished in the exhilaration of watching the flight of the sleds. She had forgotten why she had come — forgotten her distress at his dismissal — forgotten everything but the spell of the long white slope, and the tingle of cold in her veins.

“Shall we go down? Should you like it?” he asked, feeling no resentment under the heightened glow of his pulses.

“Oh, do take me — I shall love it!” Her eyes shone like a child’s — she might have been a lovelier embodiment of the shouting boyhood about them.

The first band of coasters, sled at heels, had by this time already covered a third of the homeward stretch; but Amherst was too impatient to wait. Plunging down to the meadow he caught up the sled-rope, and raced back with the pack of rejoicing youth in his wake. The sharp climb up the hill seemed to fill his lungs with flame: his whole body burned with a strange intensity of life. As he reached the top, a distant bell rang across the fields from Westmore, and the boys began to snatch up their coats and mufflers.

“Be off with you — I’ll look after the sleds,” Amherst called to them as they dispersed; then he turned for a moment to see that the skaters below were also heeding the summons.

A cold pallor lay on the river-banks and on the low meadow beneath the knoll; but the woodland opposite stood black against scarlet vapours that ravelled off in sheer light toward a sky hung with an icy moon.

Amherst drew up the sled and held it steady while Bessy, seating herself, tucked her furs close with little breaks of laughter; then he placed himself in front.

“Ready?” he cried over his shoulder, and “Ready!” she called back.

Their craft quivered under them, hanging an instant over the long stretch of whiteness below; the level sun dazzled their eyes, and the first plunge seemed to dash them down into darkness. Amherst heard a cry of glee behind him; then all sounds were lost in the whistle of air humming by like the flight of a million arrows. They had dropped below the sunset and were tearing through the clear nether twilight of the descent; then, with a bound, the sled met the level, and shot away across the meadow toward the opposite height. It seemed to Amherst as though his body had been left behind, and only the spirit in him rode the wild blue currents of galloping air; but as the sled’s rush began to slacken with the strain of the last ascent he was recalled to himself by the touch of the breathing warmth at his back. Bessy had put out a hand to steady herself, and as she leaned forward, gripping his arm, a flying end of her furs swept his face. There was a delicious pang in being thus caught back to life; and as the sled stopped, and he sprang to his feet, he still glowed with the sensation. Bessy too was under the spell. In the dusk of the beech-grove where they had landed, he could barely distinguish her features; but her eyes shone on him, and he heard her quick breathing as he stooped to help her to her feet.

“Oh, how beautiful — it’s the only thing better than a good gallop!”

She leaned against a tree-bole, panting a little, and loosening her furs.

“What a pity it’s too dark to begin again!” she sighed, looking about her through the dim weaving of leafless boughs.

“It’s not so dark in the open — we might have one more,” he proposed; but she shook her head, seized by a new whim.

“It’s so still and delicious in here — did you hear the snow fall when that squirrel jumped across to the pine?” She tilted her head, narrowing her lids as she peered upward. “There he is! One gets used to the light. . . . Look! See his little eyes shining down at us!”

As Amherst looked where she pointed, the squirrel leapt to another tree, and they stole on after him through the hushed wood, guided by his grey flashes in the dimness. Here and there, in a break of the snow, they trod on a bed of wet leaves that gave out a breath of hidden life, or a hemlock twig dashed its spicy scent into their faces. As they grew used to the twilight their eyes began to distinguish countless delicate gradations of tint: cold mottlings of grey-black boles against the snow, wet russets of drifted beech-leaves, a distant network of mauve twigs melting into the woodland haze. And in the silence just such fine gradations of sound became audible: the soft drop of loosened snow-lumps, a stir of startled wings, the creak of a dead branch, somewhere far off in darkness.

They walked on, still in silence, as though they had entered the glade of an enchanted forest and were powerless to turn back or to break the hush with a word. They made no pretense of following the squirrel any longer; he had flashed away to a high tree-top, from which his ironical chatter pattered down on their unheeding ears. Amherst’s sensations were not of that highest order of happiness where mind and heart mingle their elements in the strong draught of life: it was a languid fume that stole through him from the cup at his lips. But after the sense of defeat and failure which the last weeks had brought, the reaction was too exquisite to be analyzed. All he asked of the moment was its immediate sweetness. . . .

They had reached the brink of a rocky glen where a little brook still sent its thread of sound through mufflings of ice and huddled branches. Bessy stood still a moment, bending her head to the sweet cold tinkle; then she moved away and said slowly: “We must go back.”

As they turned to retrace their steps a yellow line of light through the tree-trunks showed them that they had not, after all, gone very deep into the wood. A few minutes’ walk would restore them to the lingering daylight, and on the farther side of the meadow stood the sleigh which was to carry Bessy back to Hanaford. A sudden sense of the evanescence of the moment roused Amherst from his absorption. Before the next change in the fading light he would be back again among the ugly realities of life. Did she, too, hate to return to them? Or why else did she walk so slowly — why did she seem as much afraid as himself to break the silence that held them in its magic circle?

A dead pine-branch caught in the edge of her skirt, and she stood still while Amherst bent down to release her. As she turned to help him he looked up with a smile.

“The wood doesn’t want to let you go,” he said.

She made no reply, and he added, rising: “But you’ll come back to it — you’ll come back often, I hope.”

He could not see her face in the dimness, but her voice trembled a little as she answered: “I will do what you tell me — but I shall be alone — against all the others: they don’t understand.”

The simplicity, the helplessness, of the avowal, appealed to him not as a weakness but as a grace. He understood what she was really saying: “How can you desert me? How can you put this great responsibility on me, and then leave me to bear it alone?” and in the light of her unuttered appeal his action seemed almost like cruelty. Why had he opened her eyes to wrongs she had no strength to redress without his aid?

He could only answer, as he walked beside her toward the edge of the wood: “You will not be alone — in time you will make the others understand; in time they will be with you.”

“Ah, you don’t believe that!” she exclaimed, pausing suddenly, and speaking with an intensity of reproach that amazed him.

“I hope it, at any rate,” he rejoined, pausing also. “And I’m sure that if you will come here oftener — if you’ll really live among your people —— ”

“How can you say that, when you’re deserting them?” she broke in, with a feminine excess of inconsequence that fairly dashed the words from his lips.

“Deserting them? Don’t you understand ——?”

“I understand that you’ve made Mr. Gaines and Truscomb angry — yes; but if I should insist on your staying —— ”

Amherst felt the blood rush to his forehead. “No — no, it’s not possible!” he exclaimed, with a vehemence addressed more to himself than to her.

“Then what will happen at the mills?”

“Oh, some one else will be found — the new ideas are stirring everywhere. And if you’ll only come back here, and help my successor —— ”

“Do you think they are likely to choose any one else with your ideas?” she interposed with unexpected acuteness; and after a short silence he answered: “Not immediately, perhaps; but in time — in time there will be improvements.”

“As if the poor people could wait! Oh, it’s cruel, cruel of you to go!”

Her voice broke in a throb of entreaty that went to his inmost fibres.

“You don’t understand. It’s impossible in the present state of things that I should do any good by staying.”

“Then you refuse? Even if I were to insist on their asking you to stay, you would still refuse?” she persisted.

“Yes — I should still refuse.”

She made no answer, but moved a few steps nearer to the edge of the wood. The meadow was just below them now, and the sleigh in plain sight on the height beyond. Their steps made no sound on the sodden drifts underfoot, and in the silence he thought he heard a catch in her breathing. It was enough to make the brimming moment overflow. He stood still before her and bent his head to hers.

“Bessy!” he said, with sudden vehemence.

She did not speak or move, but in the quickened state of his perceptions he became aware that she was silently weeping. The gathering darkness under the trees enveloped them. It absorbed her outline into the shadowy background of the wood, from which her face emerged in a faint spot of pallor; and the same obscurity seemed to envelop his faculties, merging the hard facts of life in a blur of feeling in which the distinctest impression was the sweet sense of her tears.

“Bessy!” he exclaimed again; and as he drew a step nearer he felt her yield to him, and bury her sobs against his arm.

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