Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

IX

“BUT, Justine —— ”

Mrs. Harry Dressel, seated in the June freshness of her Oak Street drawing-room, and harmonizing by her high lights and hard edges with the white-and-gold angularities of the best furniture, cast a rebuking eye on her friend Miss Brent, who stood arranging in a glass bowl the handful of roses she had just brought in from the garden.

Mrs. Dressel’s intonation made it clear that the entrance of Miss Brent had been the signal for renewing an argument which the latter had perhaps left the room to escape.

“When you were here three years ago, Justine, I could understand your not wanting to go out, because you were in mourning for your mother — and besides, you’d volunteered for that bad surgical case in the Hope Hospital. But now that you’ve come back for a rest and a change I can’t imagine why you persist in shutting yourself up — unless, of course,” she concluded, in a higher key of reproach, “it’s because you think so little of Hanaford society —— ”

Justine Brent, putting the last rose in place, turned from her task with a protesting gesture.

“My dear Effie, who am I to think little of any society, when I belong to none?” She passed a last light touch over the flowers, and crossing the room, brushed her friend’s hand with the same caressing gesture.

Mrs. Dressel met it with an unrelenting turn of her plump shoulder, murmuring: “Oh, if you take that tone!” And on Miss Brent’s gaily rejoining: “Isn’t it better than to have other people take it for me?” she replied, with an air of affront that expressed itself in a ruffling of her whole pretty person: “If you’ll excuse my saying so, Justine, the fact that you are staying with me would be enough to make you welcome anywhere in Hanaford!”

“I’m sure of it, dear; so sure that my horrid pride rather resents being floated in on the high tide of such overwhelming credentials.”

Mrs. Dressel glanced up doubtfully at the dark face laughing down on her. Though she was president of the Maplewood Avenue Book-club, and habitually figured in the society column of the “Banner” as one of the intellectual leaders of Hanaford, there were moments when her self-confidence trembled before Justine’s light sallies. It was absurd, of course, given the relative situations of the two; and Mrs. Dressel, behind her friend’s back, was quickly reassured by the thought that Justine was only a hospital nurse, who had to work for her living, and had really never “been anywhere”; but when Miss Brent’s verbal arrows were flying, it seemed somehow of more immediate consequence that she was fairly well-connected, and lived in New York. No one placed a higher value on the abstract qualities of wit and irony than Mrs. Dressel; the difficulty was that she never quite knew when Justine’s retorts were loaded, or when her own susceptibilities were the target aimed at; and between her desire to appear to take the joke, and the fear of being ridiculed without knowing it, her pretty face often presented an interesting study in perplexity. As usual, she now took refuge in bringing the talk back to a personal issue.

“I can’t imagine,” she said, “why you won’t go to the Gaines’s garden-party. It’s always the most brilliant affair of the season; and this year, with the John Amhersts here, and all their party — that fascinating Mrs. Eustace Ansell, and Mrs. Amherst’s father, old Mr. Langhope, who is quite as quick and clever as you are — you certainly can’t accuse us of being dull and provincial!”

Miss Brent smiled. “As far as I can remember, Effie, it is always you who accuse others of bringing that charge against Hanaford. For my part, I know too little of it to have formed any opinion; but whatever it may have to offer me, I am painfully conscious of having, at present, nothing but your kind commendation to give in return.”

Mrs. Dressel rose impatiently. “How absurdly you talk! You’re a little thinner than usual, and I don’t like those dark lines under your eyes; but Westy Gaines told me yesterday that he thought you handsomer than ever, and that it was intensely becoming to some women to look over-tired.”

“It’s lucky I’m one of that kind,” Miss Brent rejoined, between a sigh and a laugh, “and there’s every promise of my getting handsomer every day if somebody doesn’t soon arrest the geometrical progression of my good looks by giving me the chance to take a year’s rest!”

As she spoke, she stretched her arms above her head, with a gesture revealing the suppleness of her slim young frame, but also its tenuity of structure — the frailness of throat and shoulders, and the play of bones in the delicate neck. Justine Brent had one of those imponderable bodies that seem a mere pinch of matter shot through with light and colour. Though she did not flush easily, auroral lights ran under her clear skin, were lost in the shadows of her hair, and broke again in her eyes; and her voice seemed to shoot light too, as though her smile flashed back from her words as they fell — all her features being so fluid and changeful that the one solid thing about her was the massing of dense black hair which clasped her face like the noble metal of some antique bust.

Mrs. Dressel’s face softened at the note of weariness in the girl’s voice. “Are you very tired, dear?” she asked drawing her down to a seat on the sofa.

“Yes, and no — not so much bodily, perhaps, as in spirit.” Justine Brent drew her brows together, and stared moodily at the thin brown hands interwoven between Mrs. Dressel’s plump fingers. Seated thus, with hollowed shoulders and brooding head, she might have figured a young sibyl bowed above some mystery of fate; but the next moment her face, inclining toward her friend’s, cast off its shadows and resumed the look of a plaintive child.

“The worst of it is that I don’t look forward with any interest to taking up the old drudgery again. Of course that loss of interest may be merely physical — I should call it so in a nervous patient, no doubt. But in myself it seems different — it seems to go to the roots of the world. You know it was always the imaginative side of my work that helped me over the ugly details — the pity and beauty that disinfected the physical horror; but now that feeling is lost, and only the mortal disgust remains. Oh, Effie, I don’t want to be a ministering angel any more — I want to be uncertain, coy and hard to please. I want something dazzling and unaccountable to happen to me — something new and unlived and indescribable!”

She snatched herself with a laugh from the bewildered Effie, and flinging up her arms again, spun on a light heel across the polished floor.

“Well, then,” murmured Mrs. Dressel with gentle obstinacy, “I can’t see why in the world you won’t go to the Gaines’s garden-party!” And caught in the whirlwind of her friend’s incomprehensible mirth, she still persisted, as she ducked her blonde head to it: “If you’ll only let me lend you my dress with the Irish lace, you’ll look smarter than anybody there. . . . ”

Before her toilet mirror, an hour later, Justine Brent seemed in a way to fulfill Mrs. Dressel’s prediction. So mirror-like herself, she could no more help reflecting the happy effect of a bow or a feather than the subtler influence of word and look; and her face and figure were so new to the advantages of dress that, at four-and-twenty, she still produced the effect of a young girl in her first “good” frock. In Mrs. Dressel’s festal raiment, which her dark tints subdued to a quiet elegance, she was like the golden core of a pale rose illuminating and scenting its petals.

Three years of solitary life, following on a youth of confidential intimacy with the mother she had lost, had produced in her the quaint habit of half-loud soliloquy. “Fine feathers, Justine!” she laughed back at her laughing image. “You look like a phoenix risen from your ashes. But slip back into your own plumage, and you’ll be no more than a little brown bird without a song!”

The luxurious suggestions of her dress, and the way her warm youth became it, drew her back to memories of a childhood nestled in beauty and gentle ways, before her handsome prodigal father had died, and her mother’s face had grown pinched in the long struggle with poverty. But those memories were after all less dear to Justine than the grey years following, when, growing up, she had helped to clear a space in the wilderness for their tiny hearth-fire, when her own efforts had fed the flame and roofed it in from the weather. A great heat, kindled at that hearth, had burned in her veins, making her devour her work, lighting and warming the long cold days, and reddening the horizon through dark passages of revolt and failure; and she felt all the more deeply the chill of reaction that set in with her mother’s death.

She thought she had chosen her work as a nurse in a spirit of high disinterestedness; but in the first hours of her bereavement it seemed as though only the personal aim had sustained her. For a while, after this, her sick people became to her mere bundles of disintegrating matter, and she shrank from physical pain with a distaste the deeper because, mechanically, she could not help working on to relieve it. Gradually her sound nature passed out of this morbid phase, and she took up her task with deeper pity if less exalted ardour; glad to do her part in the vast impersonal labour of easing the world’s misery, but longing with all the warm instincts of youth for a special load to lift, a single hand to clasp.

Ah, it was cruel to be alive, to be young, to bubble with springs of mirth and tenderness and folly, and to live in perpetual contact with decay and pain — to look persistently into the grey face of death without having lifted even a corner of life’s veil! Now and then, when she felt her youth flame through the sheath of dullness which was gradually enclosing it, she rebelled at the conditions that tied a spirit like hers to its monotonous task, while others, without a quiver of wings on their dull shoulders, or a note of music in their hearts, had the whole wide world to range through, and saw in it no more than a frightful emptiness to be shut out with tight walls of habit. . . .

A tap on the door announced Mrs. Dressel, garbed for conquest, and bestowing on her brilliant person the last anxious touches of the artist reluctant to part from a masterpiece.

“My dear, how well you look! I knew that dress would be becoming!” she exclaimed, generously transferring her self-approval to Justine; and adding, as the latter moved toward her: “I wish Westy Gaines could see you now!”

“Well, he will presently,” Miss Brent rejoined, ignoring the slight stress on the name.

Mrs. Dressel continued to brood on her maternally. “Justine — I wish you’d tell me! You say you hate the life you’re leading now — but isn’t there somebody who might ——?”

“Give me another, with lace dresses in it?” Justine’s slight shrug might have seemed theatrical, had it not been a part of the ceaseless dramatic play of her flexible person. “There might be, perhaps . . . only I’m not sure — ” She broke off whimsically.

“Not sure of what?”

“That this kind of dress might not always be a little tight on the shoulders.”

“Tight on the shoulders? What do you mean, Justine? My clothes simply hang on you!”

“Oh, Effie dear, don’t you remember the fable of the wings under the skin, that sprout when one meets a pair of kindred shoulders?” And, as Mrs. Dressel bent on her a brow of unenlightenment — “Well, it doesn’t matter: I only meant that I’ve always been afraid good clothes might keep my wings from sprouting!” She turned back to the glass, giving herself a last light touch such as she had bestowed on the roses.

“And that reminds me,” she continued — “how about Mr. Amherst’s wings?”

“John Amherst?” Mrs. Dressel brightened into immediate attention. “Why, do you know him?”

“Not as the owner of the Westmore Mills; but I came across him as their assistant manager three years ago, at the Hope Hospital, and he was starting a very promising pair then. I wonder if they’re doing as well under his new coat.”

“I’m not sure that I understand you when you talk poetry,” said Mrs. Dressel with less interest; “but personally I can’t say I like John Amherst — and he is certainly not worthy of such a lovely woman as Mrs. Westmore. Of course she would never let any one see that she’s not perfectly happy; but I’m told he has given them all a great deal of trouble by interfering in the management of the mills, and his manner is so cold and sarcastic — the truth is, I suppose he’s never quite at ease in society. Her family have never been really reconciled to the marriage; and Westy Gaines says —— ”

“Ah, Westy Gaines would,” Justine interposed lightly. “But if Mrs. Amherst is really the Bessy Langhope I used to know it must be rather a struggle for the wings!”

Mrs. Dressel’s flagging interest settled on the one glimpse of fact in this statement. “It’s such a coincidence that you should have known her too! Was she always so perfectly fascinating? I wish I knew how she gives that look to her hair!”

Justine gathered up the lace sunshade and long gloves which her friend had lent her. “There was not much more that was genuine about her character — that was her very own, I mean — than there is about my appearance at this moment. She was always the dearest little chameleon in the world, taking everybody’s colour in the most flattering way, and giving back, I must say, a most charming reflection — if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor; but when one got her by herself, with no reflections to catch, one found she hadn’t any particular colour of her own. One of the girls used to say she ought to wear a tag, because she was so easily mislaid —— Now then, I’m ready!”

Justine advanced to the door, and Mrs. Dressel followed her downstairs, reflecting with pardonable complacency that one of the disadvantages of being clever was that it tempted one to say sarcastic things of other women — than which she could imagine no more crying social error.

During the drive to the garden-party, Justine’s thoughts, drawn to the past by the mention of Bessy Langhope’s name, reverted to the comic inconsequences of her own lot — to that persistent irrelevance of incident that had once made her compare herself to an actor always playing his part before the wrong stage-setting. Was there not, for instance, a mocking incongruity in the fact that a creature so leaping with life should have, for chief outlet, the narrow mental channel of the excellent couple between whom she was now being borne to the Gaines garden-party? All her friendships were the result of propinquity or of early association, and fate had held her imprisoned in a circle of well-to-do mediocrity, peopled by just such figures as those of the kindly and prosperous Dressels. Effie Dressel, the daughter of a cousin of Mrs. Brent’s, had obscurely but safely allied herself with the heavy blond young man who was to succeed his father as President of the Union Bank, and who was already regarded by the “solid business interests” of Hanaford as possessing talents likely to carry him far in the development of the paternal fortunes. Harry Dressel’s honest countenance gave no evidence of peculiar astuteness, and he was in fact rather the product of special conditions than of an irresistible bent. He had the sound Saxon love of games, and the most interesting game he had ever been taught was “business.” He was a simple domestic being, and according to Hanaford standards the most obvious obligation of the husband and father was to make his family richer. If Harry Dressel had ever formulated his aims, he might have said that he wanted to be the man whom Hanaford most respected, and that was only another way of saying, the richest man in Hanaford. Effie embraced his creed with a zeal facilitated by such evidence of its soundness as a growing income and the early prospects of a carriage. Her mother-in-law, a kind old lady with a simple unquestioning love of money, had told her on her wedding day that Harry’s one object would always be to make his family proud of him; and the recent purchase of the victoria in which Justine and the Dressels were now seated was regarded by the family as a striking fulfillment of this prophecy.

In the course of her hospital work Justine had of necessity run across far different types; but from the connections thus offered she was often held back by the subtler shades of taste that civilize human intercourse. Her world, in short, had been chiefly peopled by the dull or the crude, and, hemmed in between the two, she had created for herself an inner kingdom where the fastidiousness she had to set aside in her outward relations recovered its full sway. There must be actual beings worthy of admission to this secret precinct, but hitherto they had not come her way; and the sense that they were somewhere just out of reach still gave an edge of youthful curiosity to each encounter with a new group of people.

Certainly, Mrs. Gaines’s garden-party seemed an unlikely field for the exercise of such curiosity: Justine’s few glimpses of Hanaford society had revealed it as rather a dull thick body, with a surface stimulated only by ill-advised references to the life of larger capitals; and the concentrated essence of social Hanaford was of course to be found at the Gaines entertainments. It presented itself, however, in the rich June afternoon, on the long shadows of the well-kept lawn, and among the paths of the rose-garden, in its most amiable aspect; and to Justine, wearied by habitual contact with ugliness and suffering, there was pure delight in the verdant setting of the picture, and in the light harmonious tints of the figures peopling it. If the company was dull, it was at least decorative; and poverty, misery and dirt were shut out by the placid unconsciousness of the guests as securely as by the leafy barriers of the garden.

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