Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton


AMHERST’S morning excursions with his step-daughter and Miss Brent renewed themselves more than once. He welcomed any pretext for escaping from the unprofitable round of his thoughts, and these woodland explorations, with their gay rivalry of search for some rare plant or elusive bird, and the contact with the child’s happy wonder, and with the morning brightness of Justine’s mood, gave him his only moments of self-forgetfulness.

But the first time that Cicely’s chatter carried home an echo of their adventures, Amherst saw a cloud on his wife’s face. Her resentment of Justine’s influence over the child had long since subsided, and in the temporary absence of the governess she was glad to have Cicely amused; but she was never quite satisfied that those about her should have pursuits and diversions in which she did not share. Her jealousy did not concentrate itself on her husband and Miss Brent: Amherst had never shown any inclination for the society of other women, and if the possibility had been suggested to her, she would probably have said that Justine was not “in his style” — so unconscious is a pretty woman apt to be of the versatility of masculine tastes. But Amherst saw that she felt herself excluded from amusements in which she had no desire to join, and of which she consequently failed to see the purpose; and he gave up accompanying his stepdaughter.

Bessy, as if in acknowledgment of his renunciation, rose earlier in order to prolong their rides together. Dr. Wyant had counselled her against the fatigue of following the hounds, and she instinctively turned their horses away from the course the hunt was likely to take; but now and then the cry of the pack, or the flash of red on a distant slope, sent the blood to her face and made her press her mare to a gallop. When they escaped such encounters she showed no great zest in the exercise, and their rides resolved themselves into a spiritless middle-aged jog along the autumn lanes. In the early days of their marriage the joy of a canter side by side had merged them in a community of sensation beyond need of speech; but now that the physical spell had passed they felt the burden of a silence that neither knew how to break.

Once only, a moment’s friction galvanized these lifeless rides. It was one morning when Bessy’s wild mare Impulse, under-exercised and over-fed, suddenly broke from her control, and would have unseated her but for Amherst’s grasp on the bridle.

“The horse is not fit for you to ride,” he exclaimed, as the hot creature, with shudders of defiance rippling her flanks, lapsed into sullen subjection.

“It’s only because I don’t ride her enough,” Bessy panted. “That new groom is ruining her mouth.”

“You must not ride her alone, then.”

“I shall not let that man ride her.”

“I say you must not ride her alone.”

“It’s ridiculous to have a groom at one’s heels!”

“Nevertheless you must, if you ride Impulse.”

Their eyes met, and she quivered and yielded like the horse. “Oh, if you say so — ” She always hugged his brief flashes of authority.

“I do say so. You promise me?”

“If you like —— ”

Amherst had made an attempt to occupy himself with the condition of Lynbrook, one of those slovenly villages, without individual character or the tradition of self-respect, which spring up in America on the skirts of the rich summer colonies. But Bessy had never given Lynbrook a thought, and he realized the futility of hoping to interest her in its mongrel population of day-labourers and publicans so soon after his glaring failure at Westmore. The sight of the village irritated him whenever he passed through the Lynbrook gates, but having perforce accepted the situation of prince consort, without voice in the government, he tried to put himself out of relation with all the questions which had hitherto engrossed him, and to see life simply as a spectator. He could even conceive that, under certain conditions, there might be compensations in the passive attitude; but unfortunately these conditions were not such as the life at Lynbrook presented.

The temporary cessation of Bessy’s week-end parties had naturally not closed her doors to occasional visitors, and glimpses of the autumnal animation of Long Island passed now and then across the Amhersts’ horizon. Blanche Carbury had installed herself at Mapleside, a fashionable colony half-way between Lynbrook and Clifton, and even Amherst, unused as he was to noting the seemingly inconsecutive movements of idle people, could not but remark that her visits to his wife almost invariably coincided with Ned Bowfort’s cantering over unannounced from the Hunt Club, where he had taken up his autumn quarters.

There was something very likeable about Bowfort, to whom Amherst was attracted by the fact that he was one of the few men of Bessy’s circle who knew what was going on in the outer world. Throughout an existence which one divined to have been both dependent and desultory, he had preserved a sense of wider relations and acquired a smattering of information to which he applied his only independent faculty, that of clear thought. He could talk intelligently and not too inaccurately of the larger questions which Lynbrook ignored, and a gay indifference to the importance of money seemed the crowning grace of his nature, till Amherst suddenly learned that this attitude of detachment was generally ascribed to the liberality of Mrs. Fenton Carbury. “Everybody knows she married Fenton to provide for Ned,” some one let fall in the course of one of the smoking-room dissertations on which the host of Lynbrook had such difficulty in fixing his attention; and the speaker’s matter-of-course tone, and the careless acquiescence of his hearers, were more offensive to Amherst than the fact itself. In the first flush of his disgust he classed the story as one of the lies bred in the malarious air of after-dinner gossip; but gradually he saw that, whether true or not, it had sufficient circulation to cast a shade of ambiguity on the persons concerned. Bessy alone seemed deaf to the rumours about her friend. There was something captivating to her in Mrs. Carbury’s slang and noise, in her defiance of decorum and contempt of criticism. “I like Blanche because she doesn’t pretend,” was Bessy’s vague justification of the lady; but in reality she was under the mysterious spell which such natures cast over the less venturesome imaginations of their own sex.

Amherst at first tried to deaden himself to the situation, as part of the larger coil of miseries in which he found himself; but all his traditions were against such tolerance, and they were roused to revolt by the receipt of a newspaper clipping, sent by an anonymous hand, enlarging on the fact that the clandestine meetings of a fashionable couple were being facilitated by the connivance of a Long Island châtelaine. Amherst, hot from the perusal of this paragraph, sprang into the first train, and laid the clipping before his father-in-law, who chanced to be passing through town on his way from the Hudson to the Hot Springs.

Mr. Langhope, ensconced in the cushioned privacy of the reading-room at the Amsterdam Club, where he had invited his son-in-law to meet him, perused the article with the cool eye of the collector to whom a new curiosity is offered.

“I suppose,” he mused, “that in the time of the Pharaohs the Morning Papyrus used to serve up this kind of thing” — and then, as the nervous tension of his hearer expressed itself in an abrupt movement, he added, handing back the clipping with a smile: “What do you propose to do? Kill the editor, and forbid Blanche and Bowfort the house?”

“I mean to do something,” Amherst began, suddenly chilled by the realization that his wrath had not yet shaped itself into a definite plan of action.

“Well, it must be that or nothing,” said Mr. Langhope, drawing his stick meditatively across his knee. “And, of course, if it’s that, you’ll land Bessy in a devil of a mess.”

Without giving his son-in-law time to protest, he touched rapidly but vividly on the inutility and embarrassment of libel suits, and on the devices whereby the legal means of vindication from such attacks may be turned against those who have recourse to them; and Amherst listened with a sickened sense of the incompatibility between abstract standards of honour and their practical application.

“What should you do, then?” he murmured, as Mr. Langhope ended with his light shrug and a “See Tredegar, if you don’t believe me” —; and his father-in-law replied with an evasive gesture: “Why, leave the responsibility where it belongs!”

“Where it belongs?”

“To Fenton Carbury, of course. Luckily it’s nobody’s business but his, and if he doesn’t mind what is said about his wife I don’t see how you can take up the cudgels for her without casting another shade on her somewhat chequered reputation.”

Amherst stared. “His wife? What do I care what’s said of her? I’m thinking of mine!”

“Well, if Carbury has no objection to his wife’s meeting Bowfort, I don’t see how you can object to her meeting him at your house. In such matters, as you know, it has mercifully been decided that the husband’s attitude shall determine other people’s; otherwise we should be deprived of the legitimate pleasure of slandering our neighbours.” Mr. Langhope was always careful to temper his explanations with an “as you know”: he would have thought it ill-bred to omit this parenthesis in elucidating the social code to his son-in-law.

“Then you mean that I can do nothing?” Amherst exclaimed.

Mr. Langhope smiled. “What applies to Carbury applies to you — by doing nothing you establish the fact that there’s nothing to do; just as you create the difficulty by recognizing it.” And he added, as Amherst sat silent: “Take Bessy away, and they’ll have to see each other elsewhere.”

Amherst returned to Lynbrook with the echoes of this casuistry in his brain. It seemed to him but a part of the ingenious system of evasion whereby a society bent on the undisturbed pursuit of amusement had contrived to protect itself from the intrusion of the disagreeable: a policy summed up in Mr. Langhope’s concluding advice that Amherst should take his wife away. Yes — that was wealth’s contemptuous answer to every challenge of responsibility: duty, sorrow and disgrace were equally to be evaded by a change of residence, and nothing in life need be faced and fought out while one could pay for a passage to Europe!

In a calmer mood Amherst’s sense of humour would have preserved him from such a view of his father-in-law’s advice; but just then it fell like a spark on his smouldering prejudices. He was clear-sighted enough to recognize the obstacles to legal retaliation; but this only made him the more resolved to assert his will in his own house. He no longer paused to consider the possible effect of such a course on his already strained relations with his wife: the man’s will rose in him and spoke.

The scene between Bessy and himself was short and sharp; and it ended in a way that left him more than ever perplexed at the ways of her sex. Impatient of preamble, he had opened the attack with his ultimatum: the suspected couple were to be denied the house. Bessy flamed into immediate defence of her friend; but to Amherst’s surprise she no longer sounded the note of her own rights. Husband and wife were animated by emotions deeper-seated and more instinctive than had ever before confronted them; yet while Amherst’s resistance was gathering strength from the conflict, Bessy unexpectedly collapsed in tears and submission. She would do as he wished, of course — give up seeing Blanche, dismiss Bowfort, wash her hands, in short, of the imprudent pair — in such matters a woman needed a man’s guidance, a wife must of necessity see with her husband’s eyes; and she looked up into his through a mist of penitence and admiration. . . .

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