Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton


BESSY, languidly glancing through her midday mail some five days later, uttered a slight exclamation as she withdrew her finger-tip from the flap of the envelope she had begun to open.

It was a black sleety day, with an east wind bowing the trees beyond the drenched window-panes, and the two friends, after luncheon, had withdrawn to the library, where Justine sat writing notes for Bessy, while the latter lay back in her arm-chair, in the state of dreamy listlessness into which she always sank when not under the stimulus of amusement or exercise.

She sat suddenly upright as her eyes fell on the letter.

“I beg your pardon! I thought it was for me,” she said, holding it out to Justine.

The latter reddened as she glanced at the superscription. It had not occurred to her that Amherst would reply to her appeal: she had pictured him springing on the first north-bound train, perhaps not even pausing to announce his return to his wife. . . . And to receive his letter under Bessy’s eye was undeniably embarrassing, since Justine felt the necessity of keeping her intervention secret.

But under Bessy’s eye she certainly was — it continued to rest on her curiously, speculatively, with an under-gleam of malicious significance.

“So stupid of me — I can’t imagine why I should have expected my husband to write to me!” Bessy went on, leaning back in lazy contemplation of her other letters, but still obliquely including Justine in her angle of vision.

The latter, after a moment’s pause, broke the seal and read.

“Millfield, Georgia.
“My dear Miss Brent,

“Your letter reached me yesterday and I have thought it over
carefully. I appreciate the feeling that prompted it — but I don’t
know that any friend, however kind and discerning, can give the
final advice in such matters. You tell me you are sure my wife will
not ask me to return — well, under present conditions that seems to
me a sufficient reason for staying away.

“Meanwhile, I assure you that I have remembered all you said to me
that day. I have made no binding arrangement here — nothing to
involve my future action — and I have done this solely because you
asked it. This will tell you better than words how much I value
your advice, and what strong reasons I must have for not following
it now.

“I suppose there are no more exploring parties in this weather. I
wish I could show Cicely some of the birds down here.

“Yours faithfully,
“John Amherst.

“Please don’t let my wife ride Impulse.”

Latent under Justine’s acute consciousness of what this letter meant, was the sense of Bessy’s inferences and conjectures. She could feel them actually piercing the page in her hand like some hypersensitive visual organ to which matter offers no obstruction. Or rather, baffled in their endeavour, they were evoking out of the unseen, heaven knew what fantastic structure of intrigue — scrawling over the innocent page with burning evidences of perfidy and collusion. . . .

One thing became instantly clear to her: she must show the letter to Bessy. She ran her eyes over it again, trying to disentangle the consequences. There was the allusion to their talk in town — well, she had told Bessy of that! But the careless reference to their woodland excursions — what might not Bessy, in her present mood, make of it? Justine’s uppermost thought was of distress at the failure of her plan. Perhaps she might still have induced Amherst to come back, had it not been for this accident; but now that hope was destroyed.

She raised her eyes and met Bessy’s. “Will you read it?” she said, holding out the letter.

Bessy received it with lifted brows, and a protesting murmur — but as she read, Justine saw the blood mount under her clear skin, invade the temples, the nape, even the little flower-like ears; then it receded as suddenly, ebbing at last from the very lips, so that the smile with which she looked up from her reading was as white as if she had been under the stress of physical pain.

“So you have written my husband to come back?”

“As you see.”

Bessy looked her straight in the eyes. “I am very much obliged to you — extremely obliged!”

Justine met the look quietly. “Which means that you resent my interference —— ”

“Oh, I leave you to call it that!” Bessy mocked, tossing the letter down on the table at her side.

“Bessy! Don’t take it in that way. If I made a mistake I did so with the hope of helping you. How can I stand by, after all these months together, and see you deliberately destroying your life without trying to stop you?”

The smile withered on Bessy’s lips. “It is very dear and good of you — I know you’re never happy unless you’re helping people — but in this case I can only repeat what my husband says. He and I don’t often look at things in the same light — but I quite agree with him that the management of such matters is best left to — to the persons concerned.”

Justine hesitated. “I might answer that, if you take that view, it was inconsistent of you to talk with me so openly. You’ve certainly made me feel that you wanted help — you’ve turned to me for it. But perhaps that does not justify my writing to Mr. Amherst without your knowing it.”

Bessy laughed. “Ah, my dear, you knew that if you asked me the letter would never be sent!”

“Perhaps I did,” said Justine simply. “I was trying to help you against your will.”

“Well, you see the result.” Bessy laid a derisive touch on the letter. “Do you understand now whose fault it is if I am alone?”

Justine faced her steadily. “There is nothing in Mr. Amherst’s letter to make me change my opinion. I still think it lies with you to bring him back.”

Bessy raised a glittering face to her — all hardness and laughter. “Such modesty, my dear! As if I had a chance of succeeding where you failed!”

She sprang up, brushing the curls from her temples with a petulant gesture. “Don’t mind me if I’m cross — but I’ve had a dose of preaching from Maria Ansell, and I don’t know why my friends should treat me like a puppet without any preferences of my own, and press me upon a man who has done his best to show that he doesn’t want me. As a matter of fact, he and I are luckily agreed on that point too — and I’m afraid all the good advice in the world won’t persuade us to change our opinion!”

Justine held her ground. “If I believed that of either of you, I shouldn’t have written — I should not be pleading with you now — And Mr. Amherst doesn’t believe it either,” she added, after a pause, conscious of the risk she was taking, but thinking the words might act like a blow in the face of a person sinking under a deadly narcotic.

Bessy’s smile deepened to a sneer. “I see you’ve talked me over thoroughly — and on his views I ought perhaps not to have risked an opinion —— ”

“We have not talked you over,” Justine exclaimed. “Mr. Amherst could never talk of you . . . in the way you think. . . . ” And under the light staccato of Bessy’s laugh she found resolution to add: “It is not in that way that I know what he feels.”

“Ah? I should be curious to hear, then —— ”

Justine turned to the letter, which still lay between them. “Will you read the last sentence again? The postscript, I mean.”

Bessy, after a surprised glance at her, took the letter up with the deprecating murmur of one who acts under compulsion rather than dispute about a trifle.

“The postscript? Let me see . . . ‘Don’t let my wife ride Impulse.’ — Et puis?” she murmured, dropping the page again.

“Well, does it tell you nothing? It’s a cold letter — at first I thought so — the letter of a man who believes himself deeply hurt — so deeply that he will make no advance, no sign of relenting. That’s what I thought when I first read it . . . but the postscript undoes it all.”

Justine, as she spoke, had drawn near Bessy, laying a hand on her arm, and shedding on her the radiance of a face all charity and sweet compassion. It was her rare gift, at such moments, to forget her own relation to the person for whose fate she was concerned, to cast aside all consciousness of criticism and distrust in the heart she strove to reach, as pitiful people forget their physical timidity in the attempt to help a wounded animal.

For a moment Bessy seemed to waver. The colour flickered faintly up her cheek, her long lashes drooped — she had the tenderest lids! — and all her face seemed melting under the beams of Justine’s ardour. But the letter was still in her hand — her eyes, in sinking, fell upon it, and she sounded beneath her breath the fatal phrase: “‘I have done this solely because you asked it.’

“After such a tribute to your influence I don’t wonder you feel competent to set everybody’s affairs in order! But take my advice, my dear — don’t ask me not to ride Impulse!”

The pity froze on Justine’s lip: she shrank back cut to the quick. For a moment the silence between the two women rang with the flight of arrowy, wounding thoughts; then Bessy’s anger flagged, she gave one of her embarrassed half-laughs, and turning back, laid a deprecating touch on her friend’s arm.

“I didn’t mean that, Justine . . . but let us not talk now — I can’t!”

Justine did not move: the reaction could not come as quickly in her case. But she turned on Bessy two eyes full of pardon, full of speechless pity . . . and Bessy received the look silently before she moved to the door and went out.

“Oh, poor thing — poor thing!” Justine gasped as the door closed.

She had already forgotten her own hurt — she was alone again with Bessy’s sterile pain. She stood staring before her for a moment — then her eyes fell on Amherst’s letter, which had fluttered to the floor between them. The fatal letter! If it had not come at that unlucky moment perhaps she might still have gained her end. . . . She picked it up and re-read it. Yes — there were phrases in it that a wounded suspicious heart might misconstrue. . . . Yet Bessy’s last words had absolved her. . . . Why had she not answered them? Why had she stood there dumb? The blow to her pride had been too deep, had been dealt too unexpectedly — for one miserable moment she had thought first of herself! Ah, that importunate, irrepressible self — the moi haïssable of the Christian — if only one could tear it from one’s breast! She had missed an opportunity — her last opportunity perhaps! By this time, even, a hundred hostile influences, cold whispers of vanity, of selfishness, of worldly pride, might have drawn their freezing ring about Bessy’s heart. . . .

Justine started up to follow her . . . then paused, recalling her last words. “Let us not talk now — I can’t!” She had no right to intrude on that bleeding privacy — if the chance had been hers she had lost it. She dropped back into her seat at the desk, hiding her face in her hands.

Presently she heard the clock strike, and true to her tireless instinct of activity, she lifted her head, took up her pen, and went on with the correspondence she had dropped. . . . It was hard at first to collect her thoughts, or even to summon to her pen the conventional phrases that sufficed for most of the notes. Groping for a word, she pushed aside her writing and stared out at the sallow frozen landscape framed by the window at which she sat. The sleet had ceased, and hollows of sunless blue showed through the driving wind-clouds. A hard sky and a hard ground — frost-bound ringing earth under rigid ice-mailed trees.

As Justine looked out, shivering a little, she saw a woman’s figure riding down the avenue toward the gate. The figure disappeared behind a clump of evergreens — showed again farther down, through the boughs of a skeleton beech — and revealed itself in the next open space as Bessy — Bessy in the saddle on a day of glaring frost, when no horse could keep his footing out of a walk!

Justine went to the window and strained her eyes for a confirming glimpse. Yes — it was Bessy! There was no mistaking that light flexible figure, every line swaying true to the beat of the horse’s stride. But Justine remembered that Bessy had not meant to ride — had countermanded her horse because of the bad going. . . . Well, she was a perfect horsewoman and had no doubt chosen her surest-footed mount . . . probably the brown cob, Tony Lumpkin.

But when did Tony’s sides shine so bright through the leafless branches? And when did he sweep his rider on with such long free play of the hind-quarters? Horse and rider shot into sight again, rounding the curve of the avenue near the gates, and in a break of sunlight Justine saw the glitter of chestnut flanks — and remembered that Impulse was the only chestnut in the stables. . . .

She went back to her seat and continued writing. Bessy had left a formidable heap of bills and letters; and when this was demolished, Justine had her own correspondence to despatch. She had heard that morning from the matron of Saint Elizabeth’s: an interesting “case” was offered her, but she must come within two days. For the first few hours she had wavered, loath to leave Lynbrook without some definite light on her friend’s future; but now Amherst’s letter had shed that light — or rather, had deepened the obscurity — and she had no pretext for lingering on where her uselessness had been so amply demonstrated.

She wrote to the matron accepting the engagement; and the acceptance involved the writing of other letters, the general reorganizing of that minute polity, the life of Justine Brent. She smiled a little to think how easily she could be displaced and transplanted — how slender were her material impedimenta, how few her invisible bonds! She was as light and detachable as a dead leaf on the autumn breeze — yet she was in the season of sap and flower, when there is life and song in the trees!

But she did not think long of herself, for an undefinable anxiety ran through her thoughts like a black thread. It found expression, now and then, in the long glances she threw through the window — in her rising to consult the clock and compare her watch with it — in a nervous snatch of humming as she paced the room once or twice before going back to her desk. . . .

Why was Bessy so late? Dusk was falling already — the early end of the cold slate-hued day. But Bessy always rode late — there was always a rational answer to Justine’s irrational conjectures. . . . It was the sight of those chestnut flanks that tormented her — she knew of Bessy’s previous struggles with the mare. But the indulging of idle apprehensions was not in her nature, and when the tea-tray came, and with it Cicely, sparkling from a gusty walk, and coral-pink in her cloud of crinkled hair, Justine sprang up and cast off her cares.

It cost her a pang, again, to see the lamps lit and the curtains drawn — shutting in the warmth and brightness of the house from that wind-swept frozen twilight through which Bessy rode alone. But the icy touch of the thought slipped from Justine’s mind as she bent above the tea-tray, gravely measuring Cicely’s milk into a “grown-up” teacup, hearing the confidential details of the child’s day, and capping them with banter and fantastic narrative.

She was not sorry to go — ah, no! The house had become a prison to her, with ghosts walking its dreary floors. But to lose Cicely would be bitter — she had not felt how bitter till the child pressed against her in the firelight, insisting raptly, with little sharp elbows stabbing her knee: “And then what happened, Justine?”

The door opened, and some one came in to look at the fire. Justine, through the mazes of her fairy-tale, was dimly conscious that it was Knowles, and not one of the footmen . . . the proud Knowles, who never mended the fires himself. . . . As he passed out again, hovering slowly down the long room, she rose, leaving Cicely on the hearth-rug, and followed him to the door.

“Has Mrs. Amherst not come in?” she asked, not knowing why she wished to ask it out of the child’s hearing.

“No, miss. I looked in myself to see — thinking she might have come by the side-door.”

“She may have gone to her sitting-room.”

“She’s not upstairs.”

They both paused. Then Justine said: “What horse was she riding?”

“Impulse, Miss.” The butler looked at his large responsible watch. “It’s not late — ” he said, more to himself than to her.

“No. Has she been riding Impulse lately?”

“No, Miss. Not since that day the mare nearly had her off. I understood Mr. Amherst did not wish it.”

Justine went back to Cicely and the fairy-tale. — As she took up the thread of the Princess’s adventures, she asked herself why she had ever had any hope of helping Bessy. The seeds of disaster were in the poor creature’s soul. . . . Even when she appeared to be moved, lifted out of herself, her escaping impulses were always dragged back to the magnetic centre of hard distrust and resistance that sometimes forms the core of soft-fibred natures. As she had answered her husband’s previous appeal by her flight to the woman he disliked, so she answered this one by riding the horse he feared. . . . Justine’s last illusions crumbled. The distance between two such natures was unspannable. Amherst had done well to remain away . . . and with a tidal rush her sympathies swept back to his side. . . .

The governess came to claim Cicely. One of the footmen came to put another log on the fire. Then the rite of removing the tea-table was majestically performed — the ceremonial that had so often jarred on Amherst’s nerves. As she watched it, Justine had a vague sense of the immutability of the household routine — a queer awed feeling that, whatever happened, a machine so perfectly adjusted would work on inexorably, like a natural law. . . .

She rose to look out of the window, staring vainly into blackness between the parted curtains. As she turned back, passing the writing-table, she noticed that Cicely’s irruption had made her forget to post her letters — an unusual oversight. A glance at the clock told her that she was not too late for the mail — reminding her, at the same time, that it was scarcely three hours since Bessy had started on her ride. . . . She saw the foolishness of her fears. Even in winter, Bessy often rode for more than three hours; and now that the days were growing longer ——

Suddenly reassured, Justine went out into the hall, intending to carry her batch of letters to the red pillar-box by the door. As she did so, a cold blast struck her. Could it be that for once the faultless routine of the house had been relaxed, that one of the servants had left the outer door ajar? She walked over to the vestibule — yes, both doors were wide. The night rushed in on a vicious wind. As she pushed the vestibule door shut, she heard the dogs sniffing and whining on the threshold. She crossed the vestibule, and heard voices and the tramping of feet in the darkness — then saw a lantern gleam. Suddenly Knowles shot out of the night — the lantern struck on his bleached face.

Justine, stepping back, pressed the electric button in the wall, and the wide door-step was abruptly illuminated, with its huddled, pushing, heavily-breathing group . . . black figures writhing out of darkness, strange faces distorted in the glare.

“Bessy!” she cried, and sprang forward; but suddenly Wyant was before her, his hand on her arm; and as the dreadful group struggled by into the hall, he froze her to him with a whisper: “The spine —— ”

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