Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton


THAT evening when dinner ended, Mrs. Ansell, with a glance through the tall dining-room windows, had suggested to Bessy that it would be pleasanter to take coffee on the verandah; but Amherst detained his wife with a glance.

“I should like Bessy to stay,” he said.

The dining-room being on the cool side the house, with a refreshing outlook on the garden, the men preferred to smoke there rather than in the stuffily-draped Oriental apartment destined to such rites; and Bessy Amherst, with a faint sigh, sank back into her seat, while Mrs. Ansell drifted out through one of the open windows.

The men surrounding Richard Westmore’s table were the same who nearly three years earlier had gathered in his house for the same purpose: the discussion of conditions at the mills. The only perceptible change in the relation to each other of the persons composing this group was that John Amherst was now the host of the other two, instead of being a subordinate called in for cross-examination; but he was so indifferent, or at least so heedless, a host — so forgetful, for instance, of Mr. Tredegar’s preference for a “light” cigar, and of Mr. Langhope’s feelings on the duty of making the Westmore madeira circulate with the sun — that the change was manifest only in his evening-dress, and in the fact of his sitting at the foot of the table.

If Amherst was conscious of the contrast thus implied, it was only as a restriction on his freedom. As far as the welfare of Westmore was concerned he would rather have stood before his companions as the assistant manager of the mills than as the husband of their owner; and it seemed to him, as he looked back, that he had done very little with the opportunity which looked so great in the light of his present restrictions. What he had done with it — the use to which, as unfriendly critics might insinuate, he had so adroitly put it — had landed him, ironically enough, in the ugly impasse of a situation from which no issue seemed possible without some wasteful sacrifice of feeling.

His wife’s feelings, for example, were already revealing themselves in an impatient play of her fan that made her father presently lean forward to suggest: “If we men are to talk shop, is it necessary to keep Bessy in this hot room?”

Amherst rose and opened the window behind his wife’s chair.

“There’s a breeze from the west — the room will be cooler now,” he said, returning to his seat.

“Oh, I don’t mind — ” Bessy murmured, in a tone intended to give her companions the full measure of what she was being called on to endure.

Mr. Tredegar coughed slightly. “May I trouble you for that other box of cigars, Amherst? No, not the Cabañas.” Bessy rose and handed him the box on which his glance significantly rested. “Ah, thank you, my dear. I was about to ask,” he continued, looking about for the cigar-lighter, which flamed unheeded at Amherst’s elbow, “what special purpose will be served by a preliminary review of the questions to be discussed tomorrow.”

“Ah — exactly,” murmured Mr. Langhope. “The madeira, my dear John? No — ah — please — to the left!”

Amherst impatiently reversed the direction in which he had set the precious vessel moving, and turned to Mr. Tredegar, who was conspicuously lighting his cigar with a match extracted from his waist-coat pocket.

“The purpose is to define my position in the matter; and I prefer that Bessy should do this with your help rather than with mine.”

Mr. Tredegar surveyed his cigar through drooping lids, as though the question propounded by Amherst were perched on its tip.

“Is not your position naturally involved in and defined by hers? You will excuse my saying that — technically speaking, of course — I cannot distinctly conceive of it as having any separate existence.”

Mr. Tredegar spoke with the deliberate mildness that was regarded as his most effective weapon at the bar, since it was likely to abash those who were too intelligent to be propitiated by it.

“Certainly it is involved in hers,” Amherst agreed; “but how far that defines it is just what I have waited till now to find out.”

Bessy at this point recalled her presence by a restless turn of her graceful person, and her father, with an affectionate glance at her, interposed amicably: “But surely — according to old-fashioned ideas — it implies identity of interests?”

“Yes; but whose interests?” Amherst asked.

“Why — your wife’s, man! She owns the mills.”

Amherst hesitated. “I would rather talk of my wife’s interest in the mills than of her interests there; but we’ll keep to the plural if you prefer it. Personally, I believe the terms should be interchangeable in the conduct of such a business.”

“Ah — I’m glad to hear that,” said Mr. Tredegar quickly, “since it’s precisely the view we all take.”

Amherst’s colour rose. “Definitions are ambiguous,” he said. “Before you adopt mine, perhaps I had better develop it a little farther. What I mean is, that Bessy’s interests in Westmore should be regulated by her interest in it — in its welfare as a social body, aside from its success as a commercial enterprise. If we agree on this definition, we are at one as to the other: namely that my relation to the matter is defined by hers.”

He paused a moment, as if to give his wife time to contribute some sign of assent and encouragement; but she maintained a puzzled silence and he went on: “There is nothing new in this. I have tried to make Bessy understand from the beginning what obligations I thought the ownership of Westmore entailed, and how I hoped to help her fulfill them; but ever since our marriage all definite discussion of the subject has been put off for one cause or another, and that is my reason for urging that it should be brought up at the directors’ meeting tomorrow.”

There was another pause, during which Bessy glanced tentatively at Mr. Tredegar, and then said, with a lovely rise of colour: “But, John, I sometimes think you forget how much has been done at Westmore — the Mothers’ Club, and the play-ground, and all — in the way of carrying out your ideas.”

Mr. Tredegar discreetly dropped his glance to his cigar, and Mr. Langhope sounded an irrepressible note of approval and encouragement.

Amherst smiled. “No, I have not forgotten; and I am grateful to you for giving my ideas a trial. But what has been done hitherto is purely superficial.” Bessy’s eyes clouded, and he added hastily: “Don’t think I undervalue it for that reason — heaven knows the surface of life needs improving! But it’s like picking flowers and sticking them in the ground to make a garden — unless you transplant the flower with its roots, and prepare the soil to receive it, your garden will be faded tomorrow. No radical changes have yet been made at Westmore; and it is of radical changes that I want to speak.”

Bessy’s look grew more pained, and Mr. Langhope exclaimed with unwonted irascibility: “Upon my soul, Amherst, the tone you take about what your wife has done doesn’t strike me as the likeliest way of encouraging her to do more!”

“I don’t want to encourage her to do more on such a basis — the sooner she sees the futility of it the better for Westmore!”

“The futility —?” Bessy broke out, with a flutter of tears in her voice; but before her father could intervene Mr. Tredegar had raised his hand with the gesture of one accustomed to wield the gavel.

“My dear child, I see Amherst’s point, and it is best, as he says, that you should see it too. What he desires, as I understand it, is the complete reconstruction of the present state of things at Westmore; and he is right in saying that all your good works there — night-schools, and nursery, and so forth — leave that issue untouched.”

A smile quivered under Mr. Langhope’s moustache. He and Amherst both knew that Mr. Tredegar’s feint of recognizing the justice of his adversary’s claim was merely the first step to annihilating it; but Bessy could never be made to understand this, and always felt herself deserted and betrayed when any side but her own was given a hearing.

“I’m sorry if all I have tried to do at Westmore is useless — but I suppose I shall never understand business,” she murmured, vainly seeking consolation in her father’s eye.

“This is not business,” Amherst broke in. “It’s the question of your personal relation to the people there — the last thing that business considers.”

Mr. Langhope uttered an impatient exclamation. “I wish to heaven the owner of the mills had made it clear just what that relation was to be!”

“I think he did, sir,” Amherst answered steadily, “in leaving his wife the unrestricted control of the property.”

He had reddened under Mr. Langhope’s thrust, but his voice betrayed no irritation, and Bessy rewarded him with an unexpected beam of sympathy: she was always up in arms at the least sign of his being treated as an intruder.

“I am sure, papa,” she said, a little tremulously, “that poor Richard, though he knew I was not clever, felt he could trust me to take the best advice —— ”

“Ah, that’s all we ask of you, my child!” her father sighed, while Mr. Tredegar drily interposed: “We are merely losing time by this digression. Let me suggest that Amherst should give us an idea of the changes he wishes to make at Westmore.”

Amherst, as he turned to answer, remembered with what ardent faith in his powers of persuasion he had responded to the same appeal three years earlier. He had thought then that all his cause needed was a hearing; now he knew that the practical man’s readiness to let the idealist talk corresponds with the busy parent’s permission to destructive infancy to “run out and play.” They would let him state his case to the four corners of the earth — if only he did not expect them to act on it! It was their policy to let him exhaust himself in argument and exhortation, to listen to him so politely and patiently that if he failed to enforce his ideas it should not be for lack of opportunity to expound them. . . . And the alternative struck him as hardly less to be feared. Supposing that the incredible happened, that his reasons prevailed with his wife, and, through her, with the others — at what cost would the victory be won? Would Bessy ever forgive him for winning it? And what would his situation be, if it left him in control of Westmore but estranged from his wife?

He recalled suddenly a phrase he had used that afternoon to the dark-eyed girl at the garden-party: “What risks we run when we scramble into the chariot of the gods!” And at the same instant he heard her retort, and saw her fine gesture of defiance. How could he ever have doubted that the thing was worth doing at whatever cost? Something in him — some secret lurking element of weakness and evasion — shrank out of sight in the light of her question: “Do you act on that?” and the “God forbid!” he had instantly flashed back to her. He turned to Mr. Tredegar with his answer.

Amherst knew that any large theoretical exposition of the case would be as much wasted on the two men as on his wife. To gain his point he must take only one step at a time, and it seemed to him that the first thing needed at Westmore was that the hands should work and live under healthier conditions. To attain this, two important changes were necessary: the floor-space of the mills must be enlarged, and the company must cease to rent out tenements, and give the operatives the opportunity to buy land for themselves. Both these changes involved the upheaval of the existing order. Whenever the Westmore mills had been enlarged, it had been for the sole purpose of increasing the revenues of the company; and now Amherst asked that these revenues should be materially and permanently reduced. As to the suppression of the company tenement, such a measure struck at the roots of the baneful paternalism which was choking out every germ of initiative in the workman. Once the operatives had room to work in, and the hope of homes of their own to go to when work was over, Amherst was willing to trust to time for the satisfaction of their other needs. He believed that a sounder understanding of these needs would develop on both sides the moment the employers proved their good faith by the deliberate and permanent sacrifice of excessive gain to the well-being of the employed; and once the two had learned to regard each other not as antagonists but as collaborators, a long step would have been taken toward a readjustment of the whole industrial relation. In regard to general and distant results, Amherst tried not to be too sanguine, even in his own thoughts. His aim was to remedy the abuse nearest at hand, in the hope of thus getting gradually closer to the central evil; and, had his action been unhampered, he would still have preferred the longer and more circuitous path of practical experiment to the sweeping adoption of a new industrial system.

But his demands, moderate as they were, assumed in his hearers the consciousness of a moral claim superior to the obligation of making one’s business “pay”; and it was the futility of this assumption that chilled the arguments on his lips, since in the orthodox creed of the business world it was a weakness and not a strength to be content with five per cent where ten was obtainable. Business was one thing, philanthropy another; and the enthusiasts who tried combining them were usually reduced, after a brief flight, to paying fifty cents on the dollar, and handing over their stock to a promoter presumably unhampered by humanitarian ideals.

Amherst knew that this was the answer with which his plea would be met; knew, moreover, that the plea was given a hearing simply because his judges deemed it so pitiably easy to refute. But the knowledge, once he had begun to speak, fanned his argument to a white heat of pleading, since, with failure so plainly ahead, small concessions and compromises were not worth making. Reason would be wasted on all; but eloquence might at least prevail with Bessy. . . .

When, late that night, he went upstairs after long pacings of the garden, he was surprised to see a light in her room. She was not given to midnight study, and fearing that she might be ill he knocked at her door. There was no answer, and after a short pause he turned the handle and entered.

In the great canopied Westmore couch, her arms flung upward and her hands clasped beneath her head, she lay staring fretfully at the globe of electric light which hung from the centre of the embossed and gilded ceiling. Seen thus, with the soft curves of throat and arms revealed, and her face childishly set in a cloud of loosened hair, she looked no older than Cicely — and, like Cicely, inaccessible to grown-up arguments and the stronger logic of experience.

It was a trick of hers, in such moods, to ignore any attempt to attract her notice; and Amherst was prepared for her remaining motionless as he paused on the threshold and then advanced toward the middle of the room. There had been a time when he would have been exasperated by her pretense of not seeing him, but a deep weariness of spirit now dulled him to these surface pricks.

“I was afraid you were not well when I saw the light burning,” he began.

“Thank you — I am quite well,” she answered in a colourless voice, without turning her head.

“Shall I put it out, then? You can’t sleep with such a glare in your eyes.”

“I should not sleep at any rate; and I hate to lie awake in the dark.”

“Why shouldn’t you sleep?” He moved nearer, looking down compassionately on her perturbed face and struggling lips.

She lay silent a moment; then she faltered out: “B— because I’m so unhappy!”

The pretense of indifference was swept away by a gush of childish sobs as she flung over on her side and buried her face in the embroidered pillows.

Amherst, bending down, laid a quieting hand on her shoulder. “Bessy —— ”

She sobbed on.

He seated himself silently in the arm-chair beside the bed, and kept his soothing hold on her shoulder. The time had come when he went through all these accustomed acts of pacification as mechanically as a nurse soothing a fretful child. And once he had thought her weeping eloquent! He looked about him at the spacious room, with its heavy hangings of damask and the thick velvet carpet which stifled his steps. Everywhere were the graceful tokens of her presence — the vast lace-draped toilet-table strewn with silver and crystal, the embroidered muslin cushions heaped on the lounge, the little rose-lined slippers she had just put off, the lace wrapper, with a scent of violets in its folds, which he had pushed aside when he sat down beside her; and he remembered how full of a mysterious and intimate charm these things had once appeared to him. It was characteristic that the remembrance made him more patient with her now. Perhaps, after all, it was his failure that she was crying over. . . .

“Don’t be unhappy. You decided as seemed best to you,” he said.

She pressed her handkerchief against her lips, still keeping her head averted. “But I hate all these arguments and disputes. Why should you unsettle everything?” she murmured.

His mother’s words! Involuntarily he removed his hand from her shoulder, though he still remained seated by the bed.

“You are right. I see the uselessness of it,” he assented, with an uncontrollable note of irony.

She turned her head at the tone, and fixed her plaintive brimming eyes on him. “You are angry with me!”

“Was that troubling you?” He leaned forward again, with compassion in his face. Sancta simplicitas! was the thought within him.

“I am not angry,” he went on; “be reasonable and try to sleep.”

She started upright, the light masses of her hair floating about her like silken sea-weed lifted on an invisible tide. “Don’t talk like that! I can’t endure to be humoured like a baby. I am unhappy because I can’t see why all these wretched questions should be dragged into our life. I hate to have you always disagreeing with Mr. Tredegar, who is so clever and has so much experience; and yet I hate to see you give way to him, because that makes it appear as if . . . as if. . . . ”

“He didn’t care a straw for my ideas?” Amherst smiled. “Well, he doesn’t — and I never dreamed of making him. So don’t worry about that either.”

“You never dreamed of making him care for your ideas? But then why do you —— ”

“Why do I go on setting them forth at such great length?” Amherst smiled again. “To convince you — that’s my only ambition.”

She stared at him, shaking her head back to toss a loose lock from her puzzled eyes. A tear still shone on her lashes, but with the motion it fell and trembled down her cheek.

“To convince me? But you know I am so ignorant of such things.”

“Most women are.”

“I never pretended to understand anything about — economics, or whatever you call it.”


“Then how —— ”

He turned and looked at her gently. “I thought you might have begun to understand something about me.”

“About you?” The colour flowered softly under her clear skin.

“About what my ideas on such subjects were likely to be worth — judging from what you know of me in other respects.” He paused and glanced away from her. “Well,” he concluded deliberately, “I suppose I’ve had my answer tonight.”

“Oh, John ——!”

He rose and wandered across the room, pausing a moment to finger absently the trinkets on the dressing-table. The act recalled with a curious vividness certain dulled sensations of their first days together, when to handle and examine these frail little accessories of her toilet had been part of the wonder and amusement of his new existence. He could still hear her laugh as she leaned over him, watching his mystified look in the glass, till their reflected eyes met there and drew down her lips to his. He laid down the fragrant powder-puff he had been turning slowly between his fingers, and moved back toward the bed. In the interval he had reached a decision.

“Well — isn’t it natural that I should think so?” he began again, as he stood beside her. “When we married I never expected you to care or know much about economics. It isn’t a quality a man usually chooses his wife for. But I had a fancy — perhaps it shows my conceit — that when we had lived together a year or two, and you’d found out what kind of a fellow I was in other ways — ways any woman can judge of — I had a fancy that you might take my opinions on faith when it came to my own special business — the thing I’m generally supposed to know about.”

He knew that he was touching a sensitive chord, for Bessy had to the full her sex’s pride of possessorship. He was human and faulty till others criticized him — then he became a god. But in this case a conflicting influence restrained her from complete response to his appeal.

“I do feel sure you know — about the treatment of the hands and all that; but you said yourself once — the first time we ever talked about Westmore — that the business part was different —— ”

Here it was again, the ancient ineradicable belief in the separable body and soul! Even an industrial organization was supposed to be subject to the old theological distinction, and Bessy was ready to co-operate with her husband in the emancipation of Westmore’s spiritual part if only its body remained under the law.

Amherst controlled his impatience, as it was always easy for him to do when he had fixed on a definite line of conduct.

“It was my situation that was different; not what you call the business part. That is inextricably bound up with the treatment of the hands. If I am to have anything to do with the mills now I can deal with them only as your representative; and as such I am bound to take in the whole question.”

Bessy’s face clouded: was he going into it all again? But he read her look and went on reassuringly: “That was what I meant by saying that I hoped you would take me on faith. If I want the welfare of Westmore it’s above all, I believe, because I want Westmore to see you as I do — as the dispenser of happiness, who could not endure to benefit by any wrong or injustice to others.”

“Of course, of course I don’t want to do them injustice!”

“Well, then —— ”

He had seated himself beside her again, clasping in his the hand with which she was fretting the lace-edged sheet. He felt her restless fingers surrender slowly, and her eyes turned to him in appeal.

“But I care for what people say of you too! And you know — it’s horrid, but one must consider it — if they say you’re spending my money imprudently. . . . ” The blood rose to her neck and face. “I don’t mind for myself . . . even if I have to give up as many things as papa and Mr. Tredegar think . . . but there is Cicely . . . and if people said. . . . ”

“If people said I was spending Cicely’s money on improving the condition of the people to whose work she will some day owe all her wealth — ” Amherst paused: “Well, I would rather hear that said of me than any other thing I can think of, except one.”

“Except what?”

“That I was doing it with her mother’s help and approval.”

She drew a long tremulous sigh: he knew it was always a relief to her to have him assert himself strongly. But a residue of resistance still clouded her mind.

“I should always want to help you, of course; but if Mr. Tredegar and Halford Gaines think your plan unbusinesslike —— ”

“Mr. Tredegar and Halford Gaines are certain to think it so. And that is why I said, just now, that it comes, in the end, to your choosing between us; taking them on experience or taking me on faith.”

She looked at him wistfully. “Of course I should expect to give up things. . . . You wouldn’t want me to live here?”

“I should not ask you to,” he said, half-smiling.

“I suppose there would be a good many things we couldn’t do —— ”

“You would certainly have less money for a number of years; after that, I believe you would have more rather than less; but I should not want you to think that, beyond a reasonable point, the prosperity of the mills was ever to be measured by your dividends.”

“No.” She leaned back wearily among the pillows. “I suppose, for instance, we should have to give up Europe this summer ——?”

Here at last was the bottom of her thought! It was always on the immediate pleasure that her soul hung: she had not enough imagination to look beyond, even in the projecting of her own desires. And it was on his knowledge of this limitation that Amherst had deliberately built.

“I don’t see how you could go to Europe,” he said.

“The doctor thinks I need it,” she faltered.

“In that case, of course — ” He stood up, not abruptly, or with any show of irritation, but as if accepting this as her final answer. “What you need most, in the meantime, is a little sleep,” he said. “I will tell your maid not to disturb you in the morning.” He had returned to his soothing way of speech, as though definitely resigned to the inutility of farther argument. “And I will say goodbye now,” he continued, “because I shall probably take an early train, before you wake —— ”

She sat up with a start. “An early train? Why, where are you going?”

“I must go to Chicago some time this month, and as I shall not be wanted here tomorrow I might as well run out there at once, and join you next week at Lynbrook.”

Bessy had grown pale. “But I don’t understand —— ”

Their eyes met. “Can’t you understand that I am human enough to prefer, under the circumstances, not being present at tomorrow’s meeting?” he said with a dry laugh.

She sank back with a moan of discouragement, turning her face away as he began to move toward his room.

“Shall I put the light out?” he asked, pausing with his hand on the electric button.

“Yes, please.”

He pushed in the button and walked on, guided through the obscurity by the line of light under his door. As he reached the threshold he heard a little choking cry.

“John — oh, John!”

He paused.

“I can’t bear it!” The sobs increased.

“Bear what?”

“That you should hate me —— ”

“Don’t be foolish,” he said, groping for his door-handle.

“But you do hate me — and I deserve it!”

“Nonsense, dear. Try to sleep.”

“I can’t sleep till you’ve forgiven me. Say you don’t hate me! I’ll do anything . . . only say you don’t hate me!”

He stood still a moment, thinking; then he turned back, and made his way across the room to her side. As he sat down beside her, he felt her arms reach for his neck and her wet face press itself against his cheek.

“I’ll do anything . . . ” she sobbed; and in the darkness he held her to him and hated his victory.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02