The Fruit of the Tree - Edith Wharton - ebook

The Fruit of the Tree ebook

Edith Wharton

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Opis

Published in 1907, this little novel by the author of „The Age of Innocence” was considered controversial for its frank treatment of labor and industrial conditions, drug addiction, mercy killing, divorce, and second marriages. Clever, idealistic and poor John Amherst, the assistant manager of the cotton mill, is fed up with the deplorable working and living conditions of the workers in his charge. While visiting a worker in hospital he encounters a young nurse, Justine, compassionate and principled, a woman who shares his dreams and aims. But Amherst is fatally distracted when he meets a wealthy and charming widow Bessy who is a new owner of the mill. The lives of all three become strangely interwoven as Amherst is forced to choose between sense and sentiment, between his care for the working classes and his infatuation with Bessy – a woman made for passion, but not for its aftermath.

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Liczba stron: 708

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Contents

BOOK I

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

BOOK II

IX

X

XI

XII

XIII

XIV

XV

XVI

XVII

XVIII

BOOK III

XIX

XX

XXI

XXII

XXIII

XXIV

XXV

XXVI

XXVII

XXVIII

XXIX

BOOK IV

XXX

XXXI

XXXII

XXXIII

XXXIV

XXXV

XXXVI

XXXVII

XXXVIII

XXXIX

XL

XLI

XLII

XLIII

BOOK I

I

In the surgical ward of the Hope Hospital at Hanaford, a nurse was bending over a young man whose bandaged right hand and arm lay stretched along the bed.

His head stirred uneasily, and slipping her arm behind him she effected a professional readjustment of the pillows. “Is that better?”

As she leaned over, he lifted his anxious bewildered eyes, deep-sunk under ridges of suffering. “I don’t s’pose there’s any kind of a show for me, is there?” he asked, pointing with his free hand–the stained seamed hand of the mechanic–to the inert bundle on the quilt.

Her only immediate answer was to wipe the dampness from his forehead; then she said: “We’ll talk about that to-morrow.”

“Why not now?”

“Because Dr. Disbrow can’t tell till the inflammation goes down.”

“Will it go down by to-morrow?”

“It will begin to, if you don’t excite yourself and keep up the fever.”

“Excite myself? I–there’s four of ’em at home–”

“Well, then there are four reasons for keeping quiet,” she rejoined.

She did not use, in speaking, the soothing inflection of her trade: she seemed to disdain to cajole or trick the sufferer. Her full young voice kept its cool note of authority, her sympathy revealing itself only in the expert touch of her hands and the constant vigilance of her dark steady eyes. This vigilance softened to pity as the patient turned his head away with a groan. His free left hand continued to travel the sheet, clasping and unclasping itself in contortions of feverish unrest. It was as though all the anguish of his mutilation found expression in that lonely hand, left without work in the world now that its mate was useless.

The nurse felt a touch on her shoulder, and rose to face the matron, a sharp-featured woman with a soft intonation.

“This is Mr. Amherst, Miss Brent. The assistant manager from the mills. He wishes to see Dillon.”

John Amherst’s step was singularly noiseless. The nurse, sensitive by nature and training to all physical characteristics, was struck at once by the contrast between his alert face and figure and the silent way in which he moved. She noticed, too, that the same contrast was repeated in the face itself, its spare energetic outline, with the high nose and compressed lips of the mover of men, being curiously modified by the veiled inward gaze of the grey eyes he turned on her. It was one of the interests of Justine Brent’s crowded yet lonely life to attempt a rapid mental classification of the persons she met; but the contradictions in Amherst’s face baffled her, and she murmured inwardly “I don’t know” as she drew aside to let him approach the bed. He stood by her in silence, his hands clasped behind him, his eyes on the injured man, who lay motionless, as if sunk in a lethargy. The matron, at the call of another nurse, had minced away down the ward, committing Amherst with a glance to Miss Brent; and the two remained alone by the bed.

After a pause, Amherst moved toward the window beyond the empty cot adjoining Dillon’s. One of the white screens used to isolate dying patients had been placed against this cot, which was the last at that end of the ward, and the space beyond formed a secluded corner, where a few words could be exchanged out of reach of the eyes in the other beds.

“Is he asleep?” Amherst asked, as Miss Brent joined him.

Miss Brent glanced at him again. His voice betokened not merely education, but something different and deeper–the familiar habit of gentle speech; and his shabby clothes–carefully brushed, but ill-cut and worn along the seams–sat on him easily, and with the same difference.

“The morphine has made him drowsy,” she answered. “The wounds were dressed about an hour ago, and the doctor gave him a hypodermic.”

“The wounds–how many are there?”

“Besides the hand, his arm is badly torn up to the elbow.”

Amherst listened with bent head and frowning brow.

“What do you think of the case?”

She hesitated. “Dr. Disbrow hasn’t said–”

“And it’s not your business to?” He smiled slightly. “I know hospital etiquette. But I have a particular reason for asking.” He broke off and looked at her again, his veiled gaze sharpening to a glance of concentrated attention. “You’re not one of the regular nurses, are you? Your dress seems to be of a different colour.”

She smiled at the “seems to be,” which denoted a tardy and imperfect apprehension of the difference between dark-blue linen and white.

“No: I happened to be staying at Hanaford, and hearing that they were in want of a surgical nurse, I offered my help.”

Amherst nodded. “So much the better. Is there any place where I can say two words to you?”

“I could hardly leave the ward now, unless Mrs. Ogan comes back.”

“I don’t care to have you call Mrs. Ogan,” he interposed quickly. “When do you go off duty?”

She looked at him in surprise. “If what you want to ask about is–anything connected with the management of things here–you know we’re not supposed to talk of our patients outside of the hospital.”

“I know. But I am going to ask you to break through the rule–in that poor fellow’s behalf.”

A protest wavered on her lip, but he held her eyes steadily, with a glint of good-humour behind his determination. “When do you go off duty?”

“At six.”

“I’ll wait at the corner of South Street and walk a little way with you. Let me put my case, and if you’re not convinced you can refuse to answer.”

“Very well,” she said, without farther hesitation; and Amherst, with a slight nod of farewell, passed through the door near which they had been standing.

II

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

She crossed the tracks and approached the narrower thoroughfare where Amherst awaited her. He hung back a moment, and she was amused to see that he failed to identify the uniformed nurse with the girl in her trim dark dress, soberly complete in all its accessories, who advanced to him, smiling under her little veil.

“Thank you,” he said as he turned and walked beside her. “Is this your way?”

“I am staying in Oak Street. But it’s just as short to go by Maplewood Avenue.”

“Yes; and quieter.”

For a few yards they walked on in silence, their long steps falling naturally into time, though Amherst was somewhat taller than his companion.

At length he said: “I suppose you know nothing about the relation between 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 more than that between them–all kinds of subterranean passages.” He paused, and began again: “For instance, Dr. Disbrow married the sister of our manager’s wife.”

“Your chief at the mills?”

“Yes,” he said with a slight grimace. “So you see, if Truscomb–the manager–thinks one of the mill-hands is only slightly injured, it’s natural that his brother-in-law, Dr. Disbrow, should take an optimistic view of the case.”

“Natural? I don’t know–”

“Don’t you think it’s natural that a man should be influenced by his wife?”

“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 favour with the Westmores, and the Westmores having a lien on the hospital, Disbrow’s position there is also bound up with his taking–more or less–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 face him, that what she resented was not so much his insinuation against his superiors as his allusion to the youthfulness of her sentiments. She was, in fact, as he now noticed, still young enough to dislike being excused for her youth. In her severe uniform of blue linen, her dusky skin darkened by the nurse’s cap, and by the pale background of the hospital walls, she had seemed older, more competent and experienced; but he now saw how fresh was the pale curve of her cheek, and how smooth the brow clasped in close waves of hair.

“I began at the wrong end,” he acknowledged. “But let me put Dillon’s case before you dismiss me.”

She softened. “It is only because of my interest in that poor fellow that 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 you know about factory life?”

“Oh, next to nothing. Just what I’ve managed to pick up in these two days 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 put the general situation before you, though Dillon’s accident is really the result of it. He works in the carding room, and on the day of the accident his ‘card’ stopped suddenly, and he put his hand behind him to get a tool he needed out of his trouser-pocket. He reached back a little too far, and the card behind him caught his hand in its million of diamond-pointed wires. Truscomb and the overseer of the room maintain that the accident was due to his own carelessness; but the hands say that it was caused by the fact of the cards being too near together, and that 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. Dillon hasn’t been in it long–he worked his way up at the mills from being a bobbin-boy–and he hadn’t yet learned how cautious a man must be in there. The cards are so close to each other that even the old hands run narrow risks, and it takes the cleverest operative some time to learn that 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. It costs more to increase the floor-space than to maim an operative now and then.”

“I see. Go on,” she murmured.

“That’s the first point; here is the second. Dr. Disbrow told Truscomb this morning that Dillon’s hand would certainly be saved, and that he might get back to work in a couple of months if the company would present him with an artificial finger or two.”

Miss Brent faced him with a flush of indignation. “Mr. Amherst–who gave you this version of Dr. Disbrow’s report?”

“The manager himself.”

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