The Fruit of the Tree eBook: Page2

Edith Wharton (2006)


  II

  WHEN Justine Brent emerged from the Hope Hospital the October dusk hadfallen and the wide suburban street was almost dark, except when theilluminated bulk of an electric car flashed by under the maples.

  She crossed the tracks and approached the narrower thoroughfare whereAmherst awaited her. He hung back a moment, and she was amused to seethat he failed to identify the uniformed nurse with the girl in her trimdark dress, soberly complete in all its accessories, who advanced tohim, smiling under her little veil.

  "Thank you," he said as he turned and walked beside her. "Is this yourway?"

  "I am staying in Oak Street. But it's just as short to go by MaplewoodAvenue."

  "Yes; and quieter."

  For a few yards they walked on in silence, their long steps fallingnaturally into time, though Amherst was somewhat taller than hiscompanion.

  At length he said: "I suppose you know nothing about the relationbetween Hope Hospital and the Westmore Mills."

  "Only that the hospital was endowed by one of the Westmore family."

  "Yes; an old Miss Hope, a great-aunt of Westmore's. But there is morethan that between them--all kinds of subterranean passages." He paused,and began again: "For instance, Dr. Disbrow married the sister of ourmanager's wife."

  "Your chief at the mills?"

  "Yes," he said with a slight grimace. "So you see, if Truscomb--themanager--thinks one of the mill-hands is only slightly injured, it'snatural that his brother-in-law, Dr. Disbrow, should take an optimisticview of the case."

  "Natural? I don't know----"

  "Don't you think it's natural that a man should be influenced by hiswife?"

  "Not where his professional honour is concerned."

  Amherst smiled. "That sounds very young--if you'll excuse my saying so.Well, I won't go on to insinuate that, Truscomb being high in favourwith the Westmores, and the Westmores having a lien on the hospital,Disbrow's position there is also bound up with his taking--more orless--the same view as Truscomb's."

  Miss Brent had paused abruptly on the deserted pavement.

  "No, don't go on--if you want me to think well of you," she flashed out.

  Amherst met the thrust composedly, perceiving, as she turned to facehim, that what she resented was not so much his insinuation against hissuperiors as his allusion to the youthfulness of her sentiments. Shewas, in fact, as he now noticed, still young enough to dislike beingexcused for her youth. In her severe uniform of blue linen, her duskyskin darkened by the nurse's cap, and by the pale background of thehospital walls, she had seemed older, more competent and experienced;but he now saw how fresh was the pale curve of her cheek, and howsmooth the brow clasped in close waves of hair.

  "I began at the wrong end," he acknowledged. "But let me put Dillon'scase before you dismiss me."

  She softened. "It is only because of my interest in that poor fellowthat I am here----"

  "Because you think he needs help--and that you can help him?"

  But she held back once more. "Please tell me about him first," she said,walking on.

  Amherst met the request with another question. "I wonder how much youknow about factory life?"

  "Oh, next to nothing. Just what I've managed to pick up in these twodays at the hospital."

  He glanced at her small determined profile under its dark roll of hair,and said, half to himself: "That might be a good deal."

  She took no notice of this, and he went on: "Well, I won't try to putthe general situation before you, though Dillon's accident is really theresult of it. He works in the carding room, and on the day of theaccident his 'card' stopped suddenly, and he put his hand behind him toget a tool he needed out of his trouser-pocket. He reached back a littletoo far, and the card behind him caught his hand in its million ofdiamond-pointed wires. Truscomb and the overseer of the room maintainthat the accident was due to his own carelessness; but the hands saythat it was caused by the fact of the cards being too near together, andthat just such an accident was bound to happen sooner or later."

  Miss Brent drew an eager breath. "And what do _you_ say?"

  "That they're right: the carding-room is shamefully overcrowded. Dillonhasn't been in it long--he worked his way up at the mills from being abobbin-boy--and he hadn't yet learned how cautious a man must be inthere. The cards are so close to each other that even the old hands runnarrow risks, and it takes the cleverest operative some time to learnthat he must calculate every movement to a fraction of an inch."

  "But why do they crowd the rooms in that way?"

  "To get the maximum of profit out of the minimum of floor-space. Itcosts more to increase the floor-space than to maim an operative now andthen."

  "I see. Go on," she murmured.

  "That's the first point; here is the second. Dr. Disbrow told Truscombthis morning that Dillon's hand would certainly be saved, and that hemight get back to work in a couple of months if the company wouldpresent him with an artificial finger or two."

  Miss Brent faced him with a flush of indignation. "Mr. Amherst--who gaveyou this version of Dr. Disbrow's report?"

  "The manager himself."

  "Verbally?"

  "No--he showed me Disbrow's letter."

  For a moment or two they walked on silently through the quiet street;then she said, in a voice still stirred with feeling: "As I told youthis afternoon, Dr. Disbrow has said nothing in my hearing."

  "And Mrs. Ogan?"

  "Oh, Mrs. Ogan--" Her voice broke in a ripple of irony. "Mrs. Ogan'feels it to be such a beautiful dispensation, my dear, that, owing to adeath that very morning in the surgical ward, we happened to have a bedready for the poor man within three hours of the accident.'" She hadexchanged her deep throat-tones for a high reedy note which perfectlysimulated the matron's lady-like inflections.

  Amherst, at the change, turned on her with a boyish burst of laughter:she joined in it, and for a moment they were blent in that closest ofunions, the discovery of a common fund of humour.

  She was the first to grow grave. "That three hours' delay didn't helpmatters--how is it there is no emergency hospital at the mills?"

  Amherst laughed again, but in a different key. "That's part of thelarger question, which we haven't time for now." He waited a moment, andthen added: "You've not yet given me your own impression of Dillon'scase."

  "You shall have it, if you saw that letter. Dillon will certainly losehis hand--and probably the whole arm." She spoke with a thrilling of herslight frame that transformed the dispassionate professional into a girlshaken with indignant pity.

  Amherst stood still before her. "Good God! Never anything but uselesslumber?"

  "Never----"

  "And he won't die?"

  "Alas!"

  "He has a consumptive wife and three children. She ruined her healthswallowing cotton-dust at the factory," Amherst continued.

  "So she told me yesterday."

  He turned in surprise. "You've had a talk with her?"

  "I went out to Westmore last night. I was haunted by her face when shecame to the hospital. She looks forty, but she told me she was onlytwenty-six." Miss Brent paused to steady her voice. "It's the curse ofmy trade that it's always tempting me to interfere in cases where I cando no possible good. The fact is, I'm not fit to be a nurse--I shalllive and die a wretched sentimentalist!" she ended, with an angry dashat the tears on her veil.

  Her companion walked on in silence till she had regained her composure.Then he said: "What did you think of Westmore?"

  "I think it's one of the worst places I ever saw--and I am not unused toslums. It looks so dead. The slums of big cities are much morecheerful."

  He made no answer, and after a moment she asked: "Does the cotton-dustalways affect the lungs?"

  "It's likely to, where there is the least phthisical tendency. But ofcourse the harm could be immensely reduced by taking up the old roughfloors which hold the dust, and by thorough cleanliness andventilation."

  "What does the company do in such cases? Where
an operative breaks downat twenty-five?"

  "The company says there was a phthisical tendency."

  "And will they give nothing in return for the two lives they havetaken?"

  "They will probably pay for Dillon's care at the hospital, and they havetaken the wife back as a scrubber."

  "To clean those uncleanable floors? She's not fit for it!"

  "She must work, fit for it or not; and there is less strain in scrubbingthan in bending over the looms or cards. The pay is lower, of course,but she's very grateful for being taken back at all, now that she's nolonger a first-class worker."

  Miss Brent's face glowed with a fine wrath. "She can't possibly standmore than two or three months of it without breaking down!"

  "Well, you see they've told her that in less than that time her husbandwill be at work again."

  "And what will the company do for them when the wife is a hopelessinvalid, and the husband a cripple?"

  Amherst again uttered the dry laugh with which he had met her suggestionof an emergency hospital. "I know what I should do if I could getanywhere near Dillon--give him an overdose of morphine, and let thewidow collect his life-insurance, and make a fresh start."

  She looked at him curiously. "Should you, I wonder?"

  "If I saw the suffering as you see it, and knew the circumstances as Iknow them, I believe I should feel justified--" He broke off. "In yourwork, don't you ever feel tempted to set a poor devil free?"

  She mused. "One might...but perhaps the professional instinct to savewould always come first."

  "To save--what? When all the good of life is gone?"

  "I daresay," she sighed, "poor Dillon would do it himself if hecould--when he realizes that all the good _is_ gone."

  "Yes, but he can't do it himself; and it's the irony of such cases thathis employers, after ruining his life, will do all they can to patch upthe ruins."

  "But that at least ought to count in their favour."

  "Perhaps; if--" He paused, as though reluctant to lay himself open oncemore to the charge of uncharitableness; and suddenly she exclaimed,looking about her: "I didn't notice we had walked so far down MaplewoodAvenue!"

  They had turned a few minutes previously into the wide thoroughfarecrowning the high ground which is covered by the residential quarter ofHanaford. Here the spacious houses, withdrawn behind shrubberies andlawns, revealed in their silhouettes every form of architecturalexperiment, from the symmetrical pre-Revolutionary structure, with itsclassic portico and clipped box-borders, to the latest outbreak inboulders and Moorish tiles.

  Amherst followed his companion's glance with surprise. "We _have_ gone ablock or two out of our way. I always forget where I am when I'm talkingabout anything that interests me."

  Miss Brent looked at her watch. "My friends don't dine till seven, and Ican get home in time by taking a Grove Street car," she said.

  "If you don't mind walking a little farther you can take a LibertyStreet car instead. They run oftener, and you will get home just assoon."

  She made a gesture of assent, and as they walked on he continued: "Ihaven't yet explained why I am so anxious to get an unbiassed opinion ofDillon's case."

  She looked at him in surprise. "What you've told me about Dr. Disbrowand your manager is surely enough."

  "Well, hardly, considering that I am Truscomb's subordinate. I shouldn'thave committed a breach of professional etiquette, or asked you to doso, if I hadn't a hope of bettering things; but I have, and that is whyI've held on at Westmore for the last few months, instead of getting outof it altogether."

  "I'm glad of that," she said quickly.

  "The owner of the mills--young Richard Westmore--died last winter," hewent on, "and my hope--it's no more--is that the new broom may sweep alittle cleaner."

  "Who is the new broom?"

  "Westmore left everything to his widow, and she is coming here to-morrowto look into the management of the mills."

  "Coming? She doesn't live here, then?"

  "At Hanaford? Heaven forbid! It's an anomaly nowadays for the employerto live near the employed. The Westmores have always lived in NewYork--and I believe they have a big place on Long Island."

  "Well, at any rate she _is_ coming, and that ought to be a good sign.Did she never show any interest in the mills during her husband's life?"

  "Not as far as I know. I've been at Westmore three years, and she's notbeen seen there in my time. She is very young, and Westmore himselfdidn't care. It was a case of inherited money. He drew the dividends,and Truscomb did the rest."

  Miss Brent reflected. "I don't know much about the constitution ofcompanies--but I suppose Mrs. Westmore doesn't unite all the offices inher own person. Is there no one to stand between Truscomb and theoperatives?"

  "Oh, the company, on paper, shows the usual official hierarchy. RichardWestmore, of course, was president, and since his death the formertreasurer--Halford Gaines--has replaced him, and his son, WestmoreGaines, has been appointed treasurer. You can see by the names that it'sall in the family. Halford Gaines married a Miss Westmore, andrepresents the clan at Hanaford--leads society, and keeps up the socialcredit of the name. As treasurer, Mr. Halford Gaines kept strictly tohis special business, and always refused to interfere between Truscomband the operatives. As president he will probably follow the samepolicy, the more so as it fits in with his inherited respect for the_status quo_, and his blissful ignorance of economics."

  "And the new treasurer--young Gaines? Is there no hope of his breakingaway from the family tradition?"

  "Westy Gaines has a better head than his father; but he hates Hanafordand the mills, and his chief object in life is to be taken for a NewYorker. So far he hasn't been here much, except for the quarterlymeetings, and his routine work is done by another cousin--you perceivethat Westmore is a nest of nepotism."

  Miss Brent's work among the poor had developed her interest in socialproblems, and she followed these details attentively.

  "Well, the outlook is not encouraging, but perhaps Mrs. Westmore'scoming will make a change. I suppose she has more power than any one."

  "She might have, if she chose to exert it, for her husband was reallythe whole company. The official cousins hold only a few shares apiece."

  "Perhaps, then, her visit will open her eyes. Who knows but poorDillon's case may help others--prove a beautiful dispensation, as Mrs.Ogan would say?"

  "It does come terribly pat as an illustration of some of the abuses Iwant to have remedied. The difficulty will be to get the lady's ear.That's her house we're coming to, by the way."

  An electric street-lamp irradiated the leafless trees and stonegate-posts of the building before them. Though gardens extended behindit, the house stood so near the pavement that only two short flights ofsteps intervened between the gate-posts and the portico. Light shonefrom every window of the pompous rusticated facade--in the turreted"Tuscan villa" style of the 'fifties--and as Miss Brent and Amherstapproached, their advance was checked by a group of persons who werejust descending from two carriages at the door.

  The lamp-light showed every detail of dress and countenance in theparty, which consisted of two men, one slightly lame, with a long whitemoustache and a distinguished nose, the other short, lean andprofessional, and of two ladies and their laden attendants.

  "Why, that must be her party arriving!" Miss Brent exclaimed; and as shespoke the younger of the two ladies, turning back to her maid, exposedto the glare of the electric light a fair pale face shadowed by theprojection of her widow's veil.

  "Is that Mrs. Westmore?" Miss Brent whispered; and as Amherst muttered:"I suppose so; I've never seen her----" she continued excitedly: "Shelooks so like--do you know what her name was before she married?"

  He drew his brows together in a hopeless effort of remembrance. "I don'tknow--I must have heard--but I never can recall people's names."

  "That's bad, for a leader of men!" she said mockingly, and he answered,as though touched on a sore point: "I mean people who don't count. In
ever forget an operative's name or face."

  "One can never tell who may be going to count," she rejoinedsententiously.

  He dwelt on this in silence while they walked on catching as theypassed a glimpse of the red-carpeted Westmore hall on which the glassdoors were just being closed. At length he roused himself to ask: "DoesMrs. Westmore look like some one you know?"

  "I fancied so--a girl who was at the Sacred Heart in Paris with me. Butisn't this my corner?" she exclaimed, as they turned into anotherstreet, down which a laden car was descending.

  Its approach left them time for no more than a hurried hand-clasp, andwhen Miss Brent had been absorbed into the packed interior hercompanion, as his habit was, stood for a while where she had left him,gazing at some indefinite point in space; then, waking to a suddenconsciousness of his surroundings, he walked off toward the centre ofthe town.

  At the junction of two business streets he met an empty car marked"Westmore," and springing into it, seated himself in a corner and drewout a pocket Shakespeare. He read on, indifferent to his surroundings,till the car left the asphalt streets and illuminated shop-fronts for agrey intermediate region of mud and macadam. Then he pocketed his volumeand sat looking out into the gloom.

  The houses grew less frequent, with darker gaps of night between; andthe rare street-lamps shone on cracked pavements, crookedtelegraph-poles, hoardings tapestried with patent-medicine posters, andall the mean desolation of an American industrial suburb. Farther onthere came a weed-grown field or two, then a row of operatives' houses,the showy gables of the "Eldorado" road-house--the only building inWestmore on which fresh paint was freely lavished--then the company"store," the machine shops and other out-buildings, the vast forbiddingbulk of the factories looming above the river-bend, and the suddenneatness of the manager's turf and privet hedges. The scene was sofamiliar to Amherst that he had lost the habit of comparison, and hisabsorption in the moral and material needs of the workers sometimes madehim forget the outward setting of their lives. But to-night he recalledthe nurse's comment--"it looks so dead"--and the phrase roused him to afresh perception of the scene. With sudden disgust he saw the sordidnessof it all--the poor monotonous houses, the trampled grass-banks, thelean dogs prowling in refuse-heaps, the reflection of a crooked gas-lampin a stagnant loop of the river; and he asked himself how it waspossible to put any sense of moral beauty into lives bounded forever bythe low horizon of the factory. There is a fortuitous ugliness that haslife and hope in it: the ugliness of overcrowded city streets, of therush and drive of packed activities; but this out-spread meanness of thesuburban working colony, uncircumscribed by any pressure of surroundinglife, and sunk into blank acceptance of its isolation, its banishmentfrom beauty and variety and surprise, seemed to Amherst the verynegation of hope and life.

  "She's right," he mused--"it's dead--stone dead: there isn't a drop ofwholesome blood left in it."

  The Moosuc River valley, in the hollow of which, for that river's sake,the Westmore mills had been planted, lingered in the memory ofpre-industrial Hanaford as the pleasantest suburb of the town. Here,beyond a region of orchards and farm-houses, several "leading citizens"had placed, above the river-bank, their prim wood-cut "residences," withporticoes and terraced lawns; and from the chief of these, Hopewood,brought into the Westmore family by the Miss Hope who had married anearlier Westmore, the grim mill-village had been carved. The pillared"residences" had, after this, inevitably fallen to base uses; but theold house at Hopewood, in its wooded grounds, remained, neglected butintact, beyond the first bend of the river, deserted as a dwelling but"held" in anticipation of rising values, when the inevitable growth ofWestmore should increase the demand for small building lots. WheneverAmherst's eyes were refreshed by the hanging foliage above the roofs ofWestmore, he longed to convert the abandoned country-seat into a parkand playground for the mill-hands; but he knew that the company countedon the gradual sale of Hopewood as a source of profit. No--the mill-townwould not grow beautiful as it grew larger--rather, in obedience to thegrim law of industrial prosperity, it would soon lose its one lingeringgrace and spread out in unmitigated ugliness, devouring green fields andshaded slopes like some insect-plague consuming the land. The conditionswere familiar enough to Amherst; and their apparent inevitablenessmocked the hopes he had based on Mrs. Westmore's arrival.

  "Where every stone is piled on another, through the whole stupidstructure of selfishness and egotism, how can one be pulled out withoutmaking the whole thing topple? And whatever they're blind to, theyalways see that," he mused, reaching up for the strap of the car.

  He walked a few yards beyond the manager's house, and turned down a sidestreet lined with scattered cottages. Approaching one of these by agravelled path he pushed open the door, and entered a sitting-room wherea green-shaded lamp shone pleasantly on bookshelves and a crowdedwriting-table.

  A brisk little woman in black, laying down the evening paper as sherose, lifted her hands to his tall shoulders.

  "Well, mother," he said, stooping to her kiss.

  "You're late, John," she smiled back at him, not reproachfully, but withaffection.

  She was a wonderfully compact and active creature, with face so youngand hair so white that she looked as unreal as a stage mother till aclose view revealed the fine lines that experience had drawn about hermouth and eyes. The eyes themselves, brightly black and glancing, hadnone of the veiled depths of her son's gaze. Their look was outward, ona world which had dealt her hard blows and few favours, but in which herinterest was still fresh, amused and unabated.

  Amherst glanced at his watch. "Never mind--Duplain will be later still.I had to go into Hanaford, and he is replacing me at the office."

  "So much the better, dear: we can have a minute to ourselves. Sit downand tell me what kept you."

  She picked up her knitting as she spoke, having the kind of hands thatfind repose in ceaseless small activities. Her son could not remember atime when he had not seen those small hands in motion--shaping garments,darning rents, repairing furniture, exploring the inner economy ofclocks. "I make a sort of rag-carpet of the odd minutes," she had onceexplained to a friend who wondered at her turning to her needlework inthe moment's interval between other tasks.

  Amherst threw himself wearily into a chair. "I was trying to find outsomething about Dillon's case," he said.

  His mother turned a quick glance toward the door, rose to close it, andreseated herself.

  "Well?"

  "I managed to have a talk with his nurse when she went off duty thisevening."

  "The nurse? I wonder you could get her to speak."

  "Luckily she's not the regular incumbent, but a volunteer who happenedto be here on a visit. As it was, I had some difficulty in making hertalk--till I told her of Disbrow's letter."

  Mrs. Amherst lifted her bright glance from the needles. "He's very bad,then?"

  "Hopelessly maimed!"

  She shivered and cast down her eyes. "Do you suppose she really knows?"

  "She struck me as quite competent to judge."

  "A volunteer, you say, here on a visit? What is her name?"

  He raised his head with a vague look. "I never thought of asking her."

  Mrs. Amherst laughed. "How like you! Did she say with whom she wasstaying?"

  "I think she said in Oak Street--but she didn't mention any name."

  Mrs. Amherst wrinkled her brows thoughtfully. "I wonder if she's not thethin dark girl I saw the other day with Mrs. Harry Dressel. Was she talland rather handsome?"

  "I don't know," murmured Amherst indifferently. As a rule he washumorously resigned to his mother's habit of deserting the general forthe particular, and following some irrelevant thread of association inutter disregard of the main issue. But to-night, preoccupied with hissubject, and incapable of conceiving how anyone else could be unaffectedby it, he resented her indifference as a sign of incurable frivolity.

  "How she can live close to such suffering and forget it!" was histhought; then, with a
movement of self-reproach, he remembered that thework flying through her fingers was to take shape as a garment for oneof the infant Dillons. "She takes her pity out in action, like thatquiet nurse, who was as cool as a drum-major till she took off heruniform--and then!" His face softened at the recollection of the girl'soutbreak. Much as he admired, in theory, the woman who kept a calmexterior in emergencies, he had all a man's desire to know that thesprings of feeling lay close to the unruffled surface.

  Mrs. Amherst had risen and crossed over to his chair. She leaned on it amoment, pushing the tossed brown hair from his forehead.

  "John, have you considered what you mean to do next?"

  He threw back his head to meet her gaze.

  "About this Dillon case," she continued. "How are all theseinvestigations going to help you?"

  Their eyes rested on each other for a moment; then he said coldly: "Youare afraid I am going to lose my place."

  She flushed like a girl and murmured: "It's not the kind of place I everwanted to see you in!"

  "I know it," he returned in a gentler tone, clasping one of the hands onhis chair-back. "I ought to have followed a profession, like mygrandfather; but my father's blood was too strong in me. I should neverhave been content as anything but a working-man."

  "How can you call your father a working-man? He had a genius formechanics, and if he had lived he would have been as great in his way asany statesman or lawyer."

  Amherst smiled. "Greater, to my thinking; but he gave me hishard-working hands without the genius to create with them. I wish I hadinherited more from him, or less; but I must make the best of what I am,rather than try to be somebody else." He laid her hand caressinglyagainst his cheek. "It's hard on you, mother--but you must bear withme."

  "I have never complained, John; but now you've chosen your work, it'snatural that I should want you to stick to it."

  He rose with an impatient gesture. "Never fear; I could easily getanother job----"

  "What? If Truscomb black-listed you? Do you forget that Scotch overseerwho was here when we came?"

  "And whom Truscomb hounded out of the trade? I remember him," saidAmherst grimly; "but I have an idea I am going to do the hounding thistime."

  His mother sighed, but her reply was cut short by the noisy opening ofthe outer door. Amherst seemed to hear the sound with relief. "There'sDuplain," he said, going into the passage; but on the threshold heencountered, not the young Alsatian overseer who boarded with them, buta small boy who said breathlessly: "Mr. Truscomb wants you to come downbimeby."

  "This evening? To the office?"

  "No--he's sick a-bed."

  The blood rushed to Amherst's face, and he had to press his lips closeto check an exclamation. "Say I'll come as soon as I've had supper," hesaid.

  The boy vanished, and Amherst turned back to the sitting-room."Truscomb's ill--he has sent for me; and I saw Mrs. Westmore arrivingtonight! Have supper, mother--we won't wait for Duplain." His face stillglowed with excitement, and his eyes were dark with the concentration ofhis inward vision.

  "Oh, John, John!" Mrs. Amherst sighed, crossing the passage to thekitchen.