Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton


IF Mr. Langhope had ever stooped to such facile triumphs as that summed up in the convenient “I told you so,” he would have loosed the phrase on Mrs. Ansell in the course of a colloquy which these two, the next afternoon, were at some pains to defend from the incursions of the Lynbrook house-party.

Mrs. Ansell was the kind of woman who could encircle herself with privacy on an excursion-boat and create a nook in an hotel drawing-room, but it taxed even her ingenuity to segregate herself from the Telfers. When the feat was accomplished, and it became evident that Mr. Langhope could yield himself securely to the joys of confidential discourse, he paused on the brink of disclosure to say: “It’s as well I saved that Ming from the ruins.”

“What ruins?” she exclaimed, her startled look giving him the full benefit of the effect he was seeking to produce.

He addressed himself deliberately to the selecting and lighting of a cigarette. “Truscomb is down and out — resigned, ‘the wise it call.’ And the alterations at Westmore are going to cost a great deal more than my experienced son-in-law expected. This is Westy’s morning budget — he and Amherst had it out last night. I tell my poor girl that at least she’ll lose nothing when the bibelots I’ve bought for her go up the spout.”

Mrs. Ansell received this with a troubled countenance. “What has become of Bessy? I’ve not seen her since luncheon.”

“No. She and Blanche Carbury have motored over to dine with the Nick Ledgers at Islip.”

“Did you see her before she left?”

“For a moment, but she said very little. Westy tells me that Amherst hints at leasing the New York house. One can understand that she’s left speechless.”

Mrs. Ansell, at this, sat bolt upright. “The New York house?” But she broke off to add, with seeming irrelevance: “If you knew how I detest Blanche Carbury!”

Mr. Langhope made a gesture of semi-acquiescence. “She is not the friend I should have chosen for Bessy — but we know that Providence makes use of strange instruments.”

“Providence and Blanche Carbury?” She stared at him. “Ah, you are profoundly corrupt!”

“I have the coarse masculine habit of looking facts in the face. Woman-like, you prefer to make use of them privately, and cut them when you meet in public.”

“Blanche is not the kind of fact I should care to make use of under any circumstances whatever!”

“No one asks you to. Simply regard her as a force of nature — let her alone, and don’t put up too many lightning-rods.”

She raised her eyes to his face. “Do you really mean that you want Bessy to get a divorce?”

“Your style is elliptical, dear Maria; but divorce does not frighten me very much. It has grown almost as painless as modern dentistry.”

“It’s our odious insensibility that makes it so!”

Mr. Langhope received this with the mildness of suspended judgment. “How else, then, do you propose that Bessy shall save what is left of her money?”

“I would rather see her save what is left of her happiness. Bessy will never be happy in the new way.”

“What do you call the new way?”

“Launching one’s boat over a human body — or several, as the case may be!”

“But don’t you see that, as an expedient to bring this madman to reason —— ”

“I’ve told you that you don’t understand him!”

Mr. Langhope turned on her with what would have been a show of temper in any one less provided with shades of manner. “Well, then, explain him, for God’s sake!”

“I might explain him by saying that she’s still in love with him.”

“Ah, if you’re still imprisoned in the old formulas!”

Mrs. Ansell confronted him with a grave face. “Isn’t that precisely what Bessy is? Isn’t she one of the most harrowing victims of the plan of bringing up our girls in the double bondage of expediency and unreality, corrupting their bodies with luxury and their brains with sentiment, and leaving them to reconcile the two as best they can, or lose their souls in the attempt?”

Mr. Langhope smiled. “I may observe that, with my poor child so early left alone to me, I supposed I was doing my best in committing her guidance to some of the most admirable women I know.”

“Of whom I was one — and not the least lamentable example of the system! Of course the only thing that saves us from their vengeance,” Mrs. Ansell added, “is that so few of them ever stop to think. . . . ”

“And yet, as I make out, it’s precisely what you would have Bessy do!”

“It’s what neither you nor I can help her doing. You’ve given her just acuteness enough to question, without consecutiveness enough to explain. But if she must perish in the struggle — and I see no hope for her — ” cried Mrs. Ansell, starting suddenly and dramatically to her feet, “at least let her perish defending her ideals and not denying them — even if she has to sell the New York house and all your china pots into the bargain!”

Mr. Langhope, rising also, deprecatingly lifted his hands, “If that’s what you call saving me from her vengeance — sending the crockery crashing round my ears!” And, as she turned away without any pretense of capping his pleasantry, he added, with a gleam of friendly malice: “I suppose you’re going to the Hunt ball as Cassandra?”

Amherst, that morning, had sought out his wife with the definite resolve to efface the unhappy impression of their previous talk. He blamed himself for having been too easily repelled by her impatience. As the stronger of the two, with the power of a fixed purpose to sustain him, he should have allowed for the instability of her impulses, and above all for the automatic influences of habit.

Knowing that she did not keep early hours he delayed till ten o’clock to present himself at her sitting-room door, but the maid who answered his knock informed him that Mrs. Amherst was not yet up.

His reply that he would wait did not appear to hasten the leisurely process of her toilet, and he had the room to himself for a full half-hour. Many months had passed since he had spent so long a time in it, and though habitually unobservant of external details, he now found an outlet for his restlessness in mechanically noting the intimate appurtenances of Bessy’s life. He was at first merely conscious of a soothing harmony of line and colour, extending from the blurred tints of the rug to the subdued gleam of light on old picture-frames and on the slender flanks of porcelain vases; but gradually he began to notice how every chair and screen and cushion, and even every trifling utensil on the inlaid writing-desk, had been chosen with reference to the whole composition, and to the minutest requirements of a fastidious leisure. A few months ago this studied setting, if he had thought of it at all, would have justified itself as expressing the pretty woman’s natural affinity with pretty toys; but now it was the cost of it that struck him. He was beginning to learn from Bessy’s bills that no commodity is taxed as high as beauty, and the beauty about him filled him with sudden repugnance, as the disguise of the evil influences that were separating his wife’s life from his.

But with her entrance he dismissed the thought, and tried to meet her as if nothing stood in the way of their full communion. Her hair, still wet from the bath, broke from its dryad-like knot in dusky rings and spirals threaded with gold, and from her loose flexible draperies, and her whole person as she moved, there came a scent of youth and morning freshness. Her beauty touched him, and made it easier for him to humble himself.

“I was stupid and disagreeable last night. I can never say what I want when I have to count the minutes, and I’ve come back now for a quiet talk,” he began.

A shade of distrust passed over Bessy’s face. “About business?” she asked, pausing a few feet away from him.

“Don’t let us give it that name!” He went up to her and drew her two hands into his. “You used to call it our work — won’t you go back to that way of looking at it?”

Her hands resisted his pressure. “I didn’t know, then, that it was going to be the only thing you cared for —— ”

But for her own sake he would not let her go on. “Some day I shall make you see how much my caring for it means my caring for you. But meanwhile,” he urged, “won’t you overcome your aversion to the subject, and bear with it as my work, if you no longer care to think of it as yours?”

Bessy, freeing herself, sat down on the edge of the straight-backed chair near the desk, as though to mark the parenthetical nature of the interview.

“I know you think me stupid — but wives are not usually expected to go into all the details of their husband’s business. I have told you to do whatever you wish at Westmore, and I can’t see why that is not enough.”

Amherst looked at her in surprise. Something in her quick mechanical utterance suggested that not only the thought but the actual words she spoke had been inspired, and he fancied he heard in them an echo of Blanche Carbury’s tones. Though Bessy’s intimacy with Mrs. Carbury was of such recent date, fragments of unheeded smoking-room gossip now recurred to confirm the vague antipathy which Amherst had felt for her the previous evening.

“I know that, among your friends, wives are not expected to interest themselves in their husbands’ work, and if the mills were mine I should try to conform to the custom, though I should always think it a pity that the questions that fill a man’s thoughts should be ruled out of his talk with his wife; but as it is, I am only your representative at Westmore, and I don’t see how we can help having the subject come up between us.”

Bessy remained silent, not as if acquiescing in his plea, but as though her own small stock of arguments had temporarily failed her; and he went on, enlarging on his theme with a careful avoidance of technical terms, and with the constant effort to keep the human and personal side of the question before her.

She listened without comment, her eyes fixed on a little jewelled letter-opener which she had picked up from the writing-table, and which she continued to turn in her fingers while he spoke.

The full development of Amherst’s plans at Westmore, besides resulting, as he had foreseen, in Truscomb’s resignation, and in Halford Gaines’s outspoken resistance to the new policy, had necessitated a larger immediate outlay of capital than the first estimates demanded, and Amherst, in putting his case to Bessy, was prepared to have her meet it on the old ground of the disapproval of all her advisers. But when he had ended she merely said, without looking up from the toy in her hand: “I always expected that you would need a great deal more money than you thought.”

The comment touched him at his most vulnerable point. “But you see why? You understand how the work has gone on growing —?”

His wife lifted her head to glance at him for a moment. “I am not sure that I understand,” she said indifferently; “but if another loan is necessary, of course I will sign the note for it.”

The words checked his reply by bringing up, before he was prepared to deal with it, the other and more embarrassing aspect of the question. He had hoped to reawaken in Bessy some feeling for the urgency of his task before having to take up the subject of its cost; but her cold anticipation of his demands as part of a disagreeable business to be despatched and put out of mind, doubled the difficulty of what he had left to say; and it occurred to him that she had perhaps foreseen and reckoned on this result.

He met her eyes gravely. “Another loan is necessary; but if any proper provision is to be made for paying it back, your expenses will have to be cut down a good deal for the next few months.”

The blood leapt to Bessy’s face. “My expenses? You seem to forget how much I’ve had to cut them down already.”

“The household bills certainly don’t show it. They are increasing steadily, and there have been some very heavy incidental payments lately.”

“What do you mean by incidental payments?”

“Well, there was the pair of cobs you bought last month —— ”

She returned to a resigned contemplation of the letter-opener. “With only one motor, one must have more horses, of course.”

“The stables seemed to me fairly full before. But if you required more horses, I don’t see why, at this particular moment, it was also necessary to buy a set of Chinese vases for twenty-five hundred dollars.”

Bessy, at this, lifted her head with an air of decision that surprised him. Her blush had faded as quickly as it came, and he noticed that she was pale to the lips.

“I know you don’t care about such things; but I had an exceptional chance of securing the vases at a low price — they are really worth twice as much — and Dick always wanted a set of Ming for the drawing-room mantelpiece.”

Richard Westmore’s name was always tacitly avoided between them, for in Amherst’s case the disagreeable sense of dependence on a dead man’s bounty increased that feeling of obscure constraint and repugnance which any reminder of the first husband’s existence is wont to produce in his successor.

He reddened at the reply, and Bessy, profiting by an embarrassment which she had perhaps consciously provoked, went on hastily, and as if by rote: “I have left you perfectly free to do as you think best at the mills, but this perpetual discussion of my personal expenses is very unpleasant to me, as I am sure it must be to you, and in future I think it would be much better for us to have separate accounts.”

“Separate accounts?” Amherst echoed in genuine astonishment.

“I should like my personal expenses to be under my own control again — I have never been used to accounting for every penny I spend.”

The vertical lines deepened between Amherst’s brows. “You are of course free to spend your money as you like — and I thought you were doing so when you authorized me, last spring, to begin the changes at Westmore.”

Her lip trembled. “Do you reproach me for that? I didn’t understand . . . you took advantage. . . . ”

“Oh!” he exclaimed.

At his tone the blood rushed back to her face. “It was my fault, of course — I only wanted to please you —— ”

Amherst was silent, confronted by the sudden sense of his own responsibility. What she said was true — he had known, when he exacted the sacrifice, that she made it only to please him, on an impulse of reawakened feeling, and not from any real recognition of a larger duty. The perception of this made him answer gently: “I am willing to take any blame you think I deserve; but it won’t help us now to go back to the past. It is more important that we should come to an understanding about the future. If by keeping your personal account separate, you mean that you wish to resume control of your whole income, then you ought to understand that the improvements at the mills will have to be dropped at once, and things there go back to their old state.”

She started up with an impatient gesture. “Oh, I should like never to hear of the mills again!”

He looked at her a moment in silence. “Am I to take that as your answer?”

She walked toward her door without returning his look. “Of course,” she murmured, “you will end by doing as you please.”

The retort moved him, for he heard in it the cry of her wounded pride. He longed to be able to cry out in return that Westmore was nothing to him, that all he asked was to see her happy. . . . But it was not true, and his manhood revolted from the deception. Besides, its effect would be only temporary — would wear no better than her vain efforts to simulate an interest in his work. Between them, forever, were the insurmountable barriers of character, of education, of habit — and yet it was not in him to believe that any barrier was insurmountable.

“Bessy,” he exclaimed, following her, “don’t let us part in this way —— ”

She paused with her hand on her dressing-room door. “It is time to dress for church,” she objected, turning to glance at the little gilt clock on the chimney-piece.

“For church?” Amherst stared, wondering that at such a crisis she should have remained detached enough to take note of the hour.

“You forget,” she replied, with an air of gentle reproof, “that before we married I was in the habit of going to church every Sunday.”

“Yes — to be sure. Would you not like me to go with you?” he rejoined gently, as if roused to the consciousness of another omission in the long list of his social shortcomings; for church-going, at Lynbrook, had always struck him as a purely social observance.

But Bessy had opened the door of her dressing-room. “I much prefer that you should do what you like,” she said as she passed from the room.

Amherst made no farther attempt to detain her, and the door closed on her as though it were closing on a chapter in their lives.

“That’s the end of it!” he murmured, picking up the letter-opener she had been playing with, and twirling it absently in his fingers. But nothing in life ever ends, and the next moment a new question confronted him — how was the next chapter to open?

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