THE FRUIT OF THE TREE
THE FRUIT OF THE TREE BY EDITH WHARTON
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY ALONZO KIMBALL
NEW YORK CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS MDCCCCVII
COPYRIGHT, 1907, BY CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
He stood by her in silence, his eyes on the injured man Frontispiece "No—I shall have to ask you to take my word for it" Facing p. 82 Half-way up the slope they met 130
THE FRUIT OF THE TREE
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?"
"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.
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."
"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 you this 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 a death that very morning in the surgical ward, we happened to have a bed ready for the poor man within three hours of the accident.'" She had exchanged her deep throat-tones for a high reedy note which perfectly simulated 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 of unions, the discovery of a common fund of humour.
She was the first to grow grave. "That three hours' delay didn't help matters—how is it there is no emergency hospital at the mills?"
Amherst laughed again, but in a different key. "That's part of the larger question, which we haven't time for now." He waited a moment, and then added: "You've not yet given me your own impression of Dillon's case."
"You shall have it, if you saw that letter. Dillon will certainly lose his hand—and probably the whole arm." She spoke with a thrilling of her slight frame that transformed the dispassionate professional into a girl shaken with indignant pity.
Amherst stood still before her. "Good God! Never anything but useless lumber?"
"And he won't die?"
"He has a consumptive wife and three children. She ruined her health swallowing 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 she came to the hospital. She looks forty, but she told me she was only twenty-six." Miss Brent paused to steady her voice. "It's the curse of my trade that it's always tempting me to interfere in cases where I can do no possible good. The fact is, I'm not fit to be a nurse—I shall live and die a wretched sentimentalist!" she ended, with an angry dash at 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 to slums. It looks so dead. The slums of big cities are much more cheerful."
He made no answer, and after a moment she asked: "Does the cotton-dust always affect the lungs?"
"It's likely to, where there is the least phthisical tendency. But of course the harm could be immensely reduced by taking up the old rough floors which hold the dust, and by thorough cleanliness and ventilation."
"What does the company do in such cases? Where an operative breaks down at twenty-five?"
"The company says there was a phthisical tendency."
"And will they give nothing in return for the two lives they have taken?"
"They will probably pay for Dillon's care at the hospital, and they have taken 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 scrubbing than 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 no longer a first-class worker."
Miss Brent's face glowed with a fine wrath. "She can't possibly stand more than two or three months of it without breaking down!"
"Well, you see they've told her that in less than that time her husband will be at work again."
"And what will the company do for them when the wife is a hopeless invalid, and the husband a cripple?"
Amherst again uttered the dry laugh with which he had met her suggestion of an emergency hospital. "I know what I should do if I could get anywhere near Dillon—give him an overdose of morphine, and let the widow 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 I know them, I believe I should feel justified—" He broke off. "In your work, don't you ever feel tempted to set a poor devil free?"
She mused. "One might...but perhaps the professional instinct to save would 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 he could—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 that his employers, after ruining his life, will do all they can to patch up the ruins."
"But that at least ought to count in their favour."
"Perhaps; if—" He paused, as though reluctant to lay himself open once more to the charge of uncharitableness; and suddenly she exclaimed, looking about her: "I didn't notice we had walked so far down Maplewood Avenue!"
They had turned a few minutes previously into the wide thoroughfare crowning the high ground which is covered by the residential quarter of Hanaford. Here the spacious houses, withdrawn behind shrubberies and lawns, revealed in their silhouettes every form of architectural experiment, from the symmetrical pre-Revolutionary structure, with its classic portico and clipped box-borders, to the latest outbreak in boulders and Moorish tiles.
Amherst followed his companion's glance with surprise. "We have gone a block or two out of our way. I always forget where I am when I'm talking about anything that interests me."
Miss Brent looked at her watch. "My friends don't dine till seven, and I can 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 Liberty Street car instead. They run oftener, and you will get home just as soon."
She made a gesture of assent, and as they walked on he continued: "I haven't yet explained why I am so anxious to get an unbiassed opinion of Dillon's case."
She looked at him in surprise. "What you've told me about Dr. Disbrow and your manager is surely enough."
"Well, hardly, considering that I am Truscomb's subordinate. I shouldn't have committed a breach of professional etiquette, or asked you to do so, if I hadn't a hope of bettering things; but I have, and that is why I've held on at Westmore for the last few months, instead of getting out of it altogether."
"I'm glad of that," she said quickly.
"The owner of the mills—young Richard Westmore—died last winter," he went on, "and my hope—it's no more—is that the new broom may sweep a little cleaner."
"Who is the new broom?"
"Westmore left everything to his widow, and she is coming here to-morrow to 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 employer to live near the employed. The Westmores have always lived in New York—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 not been seen there in my time. She is very young, and Westmore himself didn'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 of companies—but I suppose Mrs. Westmore doesn't unite all the offices in her own person. Is there no one to stand between Truscomb and the operatives?"
"Oh, the company, on paper, shows the usual official hierarchy. Richard Westmore, of course, was president, and since his death the former treasurer—Halford Gaines—has replaced him, and his son, Westmore Gaines, has been appointed treasurer. You can see by the names that it's all in the family. Halford Gaines married a Miss Westmore, and represents the clan at Hanaford—leads society, and keeps up the social credit of the name. As treasurer, Mr. Halford Gaines kept strictly to his special business, and always refused to interfere between Truscomb and the operatives. As president he will probably follow the same policy, 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 breaking away from the family tradition?"
"Westy Gaines has a better head than his father; but he hates Hanaford and the mills, and his chief object in life is to be taken for a New Yorker. So far he hasn't been here much, except for the quarterly meetings, and his routine work is done by another cousin—you perceive that Westmore is a nest of nepotism."
Miss Brent's work among the poor had developed her interest in social problems, and she followed these details attentively.
"Well, the outlook is not encouraging, but perhaps Mrs. Westmore's coming 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 really the whole company. The official cousins hold only a few shares apiece."
"Perhaps, then, her visit will open her eyes. Who knows but poor Dillon'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 I want 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 stone gate-posts of the building before them. Though gardens extended behind it, the house stood so near the pavement that only two short flights of steps intervened between the gate-posts and the portico. Light shone from every window of the pompous rusticated facade—in the turreted "Tuscan villa" style of the 'fifties—and as Miss Brent and Amherst approached, their advance was checked by a group of persons who were just descending from two carriages at the door.
The lamp-light showed every detail of dress and countenance in the party, which consisted of two men, one slightly lame, with a long white moustache and a distinguished nose, the other short, lean and professional, and of two ladies and their laden attendants.
"Why, that must be her party arriving!" Miss Brent exclaimed; and as she spoke the younger of the two ladies, turning back to her maid, exposed to the glare of the electric light a fair pale face shadowed by the projection 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: "She looks 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't know—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. I never forget an operative's name or face."
"One can never tell who may be going to count," she rejoined sententiously.
He dwelt on this in silence while they walked on catching as they passed a glimpse of the red-carpeted Westmore hall on which the glass doors were just being closed. At length he roused himself to ask: "Does Mrs. Westmore look like some one you know?"
"I fancied so—a girl who was at the Sacred Heart in Paris with me. But isn't this my corner?" she exclaimed, as they turned into another street, down which a laden car was descending.
Its approach left them time for no more than a hurried hand-clasp, and when Miss Brent had been absorbed into the packed interior her companion, as his habit was, stood for a while where she had left him, gazing at some indefinite point in space; then, waking to a sudden consciousness of his surroundings, he walked off toward the centre of the 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 drew out a pocket Shakespeare. He read on, indifferent to his surroundings, till the car left the asphalt streets and illuminated shop-fronts for a grey intermediate region of mud and macadam. Then he pocketed his volume and sat looking out into the gloom.
The houses grew less frequent, with darker gaps of night between; and the rare street-lamps shone on cracked pavements, crooked telegraph-poles, hoardings tapestried with patent-medicine posters, and all the mean desolation of an American industrial suburb. Farther on there came a weed-grown field or two, then a row of operatives' houses, the showy gables of the "Eldorado" road-house—the only building in Westmore on which fresh paint was freely lavished—then the company "store," the machine shops and other out-buildings, the vast forbidding bulk of the factories looming above the river-bend, and the sudden neatness of the manager's turf and privet hedges. The scene was so familiar to Amherst that he had lost the habit of comparison, and his absorption in the moral and material needs of the workers sometimes made him forget the outward setting of their lives. But to-night he recalled the nurse's comment—"it looks so dead"—and the phrase roused him to a fresh perception of the scene. With sudden disgust he saw the sordidness of it all—the poor monotonous houses, the trampled grass-banks, the lean dogs prowling in refuse-heaps, the reflection of a crooked gas-lamp in a stagnant loop of the river; and he asked himself how it was possible to put any sense of moral beauty into lives bounded forever by the low horizon of the factory. There is a fortuitous ugliness that has life and hope in it: the ugliness of overcrowded city streets, of the rush and drive of packed activities; but this out-spread meanness of the suburban working colony, uncircumscribed by any pressure of surrounding life, and sunk into blank acceptance of its isolation, its banishment from beauty and variety and surprise, seemed to Amherst the very negation of hope and life.
"She's right," he mused—"it's dead—stone dead: there isn't a drop of wholesome 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 of pre-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," with porticoes and terraced lawns; and from the chief of these, Hopewood, brought into the Westmore family by the Miss Hope who had married an earlier Westmore, the grim mill-village had been carved. The pillared "residences" had, after this, inevitably fallen to base uses; but the old house at Hopewood, in its wooded grounds, remained, neglected but intact, beyond the first bend of the river, deserted as a dwelling but "held" in anticipation of rising values, when the inevitable growth of Westmore should increase the demand for small building lots. Whenever Amherst's eyes were refreshed by the hanging foliage above the roofs of Westmore, he longed to convert the abandoned country-seat into a park and playground for the mill-hands; but he knew that the company counted on the gradual sale of Hopewood as a source of profit. No—the mill-town would not grow beautiful as it grew larger—rather, in obedience to the grim law of industrial prosperity, it would soon lose its one lingering grace and spread out in unmitigated ugliness, devouring green fields and shaded slopes like some insect-plague consuming the land. The conditions were familiar enough to Amherst; and their apparent inevitableness mocked the hopes he had based on Mrs. Westmore's arrival.
"Where every stone is piled on another, through the whole stupid structure of selfishness and egotism, how can one be pulled out without making the whole thing topple? And whatever they're blind to, they always 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 side street lined with scattered cottages. Approaching one of these by a gravelled path he pushed open the door, and entered a sitting-room where a green-shaded lamp shone pleasantly on bookshelves and a crowded writing-table.
A brisk little woman in black, laying down the evening paper as she rose, 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 with affection.
She was a wonderfully compact and active creature, with face so young and hair so white that she looked as unreal as a stage mother till a close view revealed the fine lines that experience had drawn about her mouth and eyes. The eyes themselves, brightly black and glancing, had none of the veiled depths of her son's gaze. Their look was outward, on a world which had dealt her hard blows and few favours, but in which her interest 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 down and tell me what kept you."
She picked up her knitting as she spoke, having the kind of hands that find repose in ceaseless small activities. Her son could not remember a time when he had not seen those small hands in motion—shaping garments, darning rents, repairing furniture, exploring the inner economy of clocks. "I make a sort of rag-carpet of the odd minutes," she had once explained to a friend who wondered at her turning to her needlework in the moment's interval between other tasks.
Amherst threw himself wearily into a chair. "I was trying to find out something about Dillon's case," he said.
His mother turned a quick glance toward the door, rose to close it, and reseated herself.
"I managed to have a talk with his nurse when she went off duty this evening."
"The nurse? I wonder you could get her to speak."
"Luckily she's not the regular incumbent, but a volunteer who happened to be here on a visit. As it was, I had some difficulty in making her talk—till I told her of Disbrow's letter."
Mrs. Amherst lifted her bright glance from the needles. "He's very bad, then?"
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 was staying?"
"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 the thin dark girl I saw the other day with Mrs. Harry Dressel. Was she tall and rather handsome?"
"I don't know," murmured Amherst indifferently. As a rule he was humorously resigned to his mother's habit of deserting the general for the particular, and following some irrelevant thread of association in utter disregard of the main issue. But to-night, preoccupied with his subject, and incapable of conceiving how anyone else could be unaffected by it, he resented her indifference as a sign of incurable frivolity.
"How she can live close to such suffering and forget it!" was his thought; then, with a movement of self-reproach, he remembered that the work flying through her fingers was to take shape as a garment for one of the infant Dillons. "She takes her pity out in action, like that quiet nurse, who was as cool as a drum-major till she took off her uniform—and then!" His face softened at the recollection of the girl's outbreak. Much as he admired, in theory, the woman who kept a calm exterior in emergencies, he had all a man's desire to know that the springs of feeling lay close to the unruffled surface.
Mrs. Amherst had risen and crossed over to his chair. She leaned on it a moment, 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 these investigations going to help you?"
Their eyes rested on each other for a moment; then he said coldly: "You are afraid I am going to lose my place."
She flushed like a girl and murmured: "It's not the kind of place I ever wanted to see you in!"
"I know it," he returned in a gentler tone, clasping one of the hands on his chair-back. "I ought to have followed a profession, like my grandfather; but my father's blood was too strong in me. I should never have been content as anything but a working-man."
"How can you call your father a working-man? He had a genius for mechanics, and if he had lived he would have been as great in his way as any statesman or lawyer."
Amherst smiled. "Greater, to my thinking; but he gave me his hard-working hands without the genius to create with them. I wish I had inherited 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 caressingly against his cheek. "It's hard on you, mother—but you must bear with me."
"I have never complained, John; but now you've chosen your work, it's natural that I should want you to stick to it."
He rose with an impatient gesture. "Never fear; I could easily get another job——"
"What? If Truscomb black-listed you? Do you forget that Scotch overseer who was here when we came?"
"And whom Truscomb hounded out of the trade? I remember him," said Amherst grimly; "but I have an idea I am going to do the hounding this time."
His mother sighed, but her reply was cut short by the noisy opening of the outer door. Amherst seemed to hear the sound with relief. "There's Duplain," he said, going into the passage; but on the threshold he encountered, not the young Alsatian overseer who boarded with them, but a small boy who said breathlessly: "Mr. Truscomb wants you to come down bimeby."
"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 close to check an exclamation. "Say I'll come as soon as I've had supper," he said.
The boy vanished, and Amherst turned back to the sitting-room. "Truscomb's ill—he has sent for me; and I saw Mrs. Westmore arriving tonight! Have supper, mother—we won't wait for Duplain." His face still glowed with excitement, and his eyes were dark with the concentration of his inward vision.
"Oh, John, John!" Mrs. Amherst sighed, crossing the passage to the kitchen.
AT the manager's door Amherst was met by Mrs. Truscomb, a large flushed woman in a soiled wrapper and diamond earrings.
"Mr. Truscomb's very sick. He ought not to see you. The doctor thinks—" she began.
Dr. Disbrow, at this point, emerged from the sitting-room. He was a pale man, with a beard of mixed grey-and-drab, and a voice of the same indeterminate quality.
"Good evening, Mr. Amherst. Truscomb is pretty poorly—on the edge of pneumonia, I'm afraid. As he seems anxious to see you I think you'd better go up for two minutes—not more, please." He paused, and went on with a smile: "You won't excite him, of course—nothing unpleasant——"
"He's worried himself sick over that wretched Dillon," Mrs. Truscomb interposed, draping her wrapper majestically about an indignant bosom.
"That's it—puts too much heart into his work. But we'll have Dillon all right before long," the physician genially declared.
Mrs. Truscomb, with a reluctant gesture, led Amherst up the handsomely carpeted stairs to the room where her husband lay, a prey to the cares of office. She ushered the young man in, and withdrew to the next room, where he heard her coughing at intervals, as if to remind him that he was under observation.
The manager of the Westmore mills was not the type of man that Amherst's comments on his superior suggested. As he sat propped against the pillows, with a brick-red flush on his cheek-bones, he seemed at first glance to belong to the innumerable army of American business men—the sallow, undersized, lacklustre drudges who have never lifted their heads from the ledger. Even his eye, now bright with fever, was dull and non-committal in daily life; and perhaps only the ramifications of his wrinkles could have revealed what particular ambitions had seamed his soul.
"Good evening, Amherst. I'm down with a confounded cold."
"I'm sorry to hear it," the young man forced himself to say.
"Can't get my breath—that's the trouble." Truscomb paused and gasped. "I've just heard that Mrs. Westmore is here—and I want you to go round—tomorrow morning—" He had to break off once more.
"Yes, sir," said Amherst, his heart leaping.
"Needn't see her—ask for her father, Mr. Langhope. Tell him what the doctor says—I'll be on my legs in a day or two—ask 'em to wait till I can take 'em over the mills."
He shot one of his fugitive glances at his assistant, and held up a bony hand. "Wait a minute. On your way there, stop and notify Mr. Gaines. He was to meet them here. You understand?"
"Yes, sir," said Amherst; and at that moment Mrs. Truscomb appeared on the threshold.
"I must ask you to come now, Mr. Amherst," she began haughtily; but a glance from her husband reduced her to a heaving pink nonentity.
"Hold on, Amherst. I hear you've been in to Hanaford. Did you go to the hospital?"
"Ezra—" his wife murmured: he looked through her.
"Yes," said Amherst.
Truscomb's face seemed to grow smaller and dryer. He transferred his look from his wife to his assistant.
"All right. You'll just bear in mind that it's Disbrow's business to report Dillon's case to Mrs. Westmore? You're to confine yourself to my message. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly clear. Goodnight," Amherst answered, as he turned to follow Mrs. Truscomb.
* * * * *
That same evening, four persons were seated under the bronze chandelier in the red satin drawing-room of the Westmore mansion. One of the four, the young lady in widow's weeds whose face had arrested Miss Brent's attention that afternoon, rose from a massively upholstered sofa and drifted over to the fireplace near which her father sat.
"Didn't I tell you it was awful, father?" she sighed, leaning despondently against the high carved mantelpiece surmounted by a bronze clock in the form of an obelisk.
Mr. Langhope, who sat smoking, with one faultlessly-clad leg crossed on the other, and his ebony stick reposing against the arm of his chair, raised his clear ironical eyes to her face.
"As an archaeologist," he said, with a comprehensive wave of his hand, "I find it positively interesting. I should really like to come here and dig."
There were no lamps in the room, and the numerous gas-jets of the chandelier shed their lights impartially on ponderously framed canvases of the Bay of Naples and the Hudson in Autumn, on Carrara busts and bronze Indians on velvet pedestals.
"All this," murmured Mr. Langhope, "is getting to be as rare as the giant sequoias. In another fifty years we shall have collectors fighting for that Bay of Naples."
Bessy Westmore turned from him impatiently. When she felt deeply on any subject her father's flippancy annoyed her.
"You can see, Maria," she said, seating herself beside the other lady of the party, "why I couldn't possibly live here."
Mrs. Eustace Ansell, immediately after dinner, had bent her slender back above the velvet-covered writing-table, where an inkstand of Vienna ormolu offered its empty cup to her pen. Being habitually charged with a voluminous correspondence, she had foreseen this contingency and met it by despatching her maid for her own writing-case, which was now outspread before her in all its complex neatness; but at Bessy's appeal she wiped her pen, and turned a sympathetic gaze on her companion.
Mrs. Ansell's face drew all its charm from its adaptability. It was a different face to each speaker: now kindling with irony, now gently maternal, now charged with abstract meditation—and few paused to reflect that, in each case, it was merely the mirror held up to some one else's view of life.
"It needs doing over," she admitted, following the widow's melancholy glance about the room. "But you are a spoilt child to complain. Think of having a house of your own to come to, instead of having to put up at the Hanaford hotel!"
Mrs. Westmore's attention was arrested by the first part of the reply.
"Doing over? Why in the world should I do it over? No one could expect me to come here now—could they, Mr. Tredegar?" she exclaimed, transferring her appeal to the fourth member of the party.
Mr. Tredegar, the family lawyer, who had deemed it his duty to accompany the widow on her visit of inspection, was strolling up and down the room with short pompous steps, a cigar between his lips, and his arms behind him. He cocked his sparrow-like head, scanned the offending apartment, and terminated his survey by resting his eyes on Mrs. Westmore's charming petulant face.
"It all depends," he replied axiomatically, "how large an income you require."
Mr. Tredegar uttered this remark with the air of one who pronounces on an important point in law: his lightest observation seemed a decision handed down from the bench to which he had never ascended. He restored the cigar to his lips, and sought approval in Mrs. Ansell's expressive eye.
"Ah, that's it, Bessy. You've that to remember," the older lady murmured, as if struck by the profundity of the remark.
Mrs. Westmore made an impatient gesture. "We've always had money enough—Dick was perfectly satisfied." Her voice trembled a little on her husband's name. "And you don't know what the place is like by daylight—and the people who come to call!"
"Of course you needn't see any one now, dear," Mrs. Ansell reminded her, "except the Halford Gaineses."
"I am sure they're bad enough. Juliana Gaines will say: 'My dear, is that the way widows' veils are worn in New York this autumn?' and Halford will insist on our going to one of those awful family dinners, all Madeira and terrapin."
"It's too early for terrapin," Mrs. Ansell smiled consolingly; but Bessy had reverted to her argument. "Besides, what difference would my coming here make? I shall never understand anything about business," she declared.
Mr. Tredegar pondered, and once more removed his cigar. "The necessity has never arisen. But now that you find yourself in almost sole control of a large property——"
Mr. Langhope laughed gently. "Apply yourself, Bessy. Bring your masterly intellect to bear on the industrial problem."
Mrs. Ansell restored the innumerable implements to her writing-case, and laid her arm with a caressing gesture on Mrs. Westmore's shoulder. "Don't tease her. She's tired, and she misses the baby."
"I shall get a telegram tomorrow morning," exclaimed the young mother, brightening.
"Of course you will. 'Cicely has just eaten two boiled eggs and a bowl of porridge, and is bearing up wonderfully.'"
She drew Mrs. Westmore persuasively to her feet, but the widow refused to relinquish her hold on her grievance.
"You all think I'm extravagant and careless about money," she broke out, addressing the room in general from the shelter of Mrs. Ansell's embrace; "but I know one thing: If I had my way I should begin to economize by selling this horrible house, instead of leaving it shut up from one year's end to another."
Her father looked up: proposals of retrenchment always struck him as business-like when they did not affect his own expenditure. "What do you think of that, eh, Tredegar?"
The eminent lawyer drew in his thin lips. "From the point of view of policy, I think unfavourably of it," he pronounced.
Bessy's face clouded, and Mrs. Ansell argued gently: "Really, it's too late to look so far into the future. Remember, my dear, that we are due at the mills tomorrow at ten."
The reminder that she must rise early had the effect of hastening Mrs. Westmore's withdrawal, and the two ladies, after an exchange of goodnights, left the men to their cigars.
Mr. Langhope was the first to speak.
"Bessy's as hopelessly vague about business as I am, Tredegar. Why the deuce Westmore left her everything outright—but he was only a heedless boy himself."
"Yes. The way he allowed things to go, it's a wonder there was anything to leave. This Truscomb must be an able fellow."
"Devoted to Dick's interests, I've always understood."
"He makes the mills pay well, at any rate, and that's not so easy nowadays. But on general principles it's as well he should see that we mean to look into everything thoroughly. Of course Halford Gaines will never be more than a good figure-head, but Truscomb must be made to understand that Mrs. Westmore intends to interest herself personally in the business."
"Oh, by all means—of course—" Mr. Langhope assented, his light smile stiffening into a yawn at the mere suggestion.
He rose with an effort, supporting himself on his stick. "I think I'll turn in myself. There's not a readable book in that God-forsaken library, and I believe Maria Ansell has gone off with my volume of Loti."
* * * * *
The next morning, when Amherst presented himself at the Westmore door, he had decided to follow his chief's instructions to the letter, and ask for Mr. Langhope only. The decision had cost him a struggle, for his heart was big with its purpose; but though he knew that he must soon place himself in open opposition to Truscomb, he recognized the prudence of deferring the declaration of war as long as possible.
On his round of the mills, that morning, he had paused in the room where Mrs. Dillon knelt beside her mop and pail, and had found her, to his surprise, comparatively reassured and cheerful. Dr. Disbrow, she told him, had been in the previous evening, and had told her to take heart about Jim, and left her enough money to get along for a week—and a wonderful new cough-mixture that he'd put up for her special. Amherst found it difficult to listen calmly, with the nurse's words still in his ears, and the sight before him of Mrs. Dillon's lean shoulder-blades travelling painfully up and down with the sweep of the mop.
"I don't suppose that cost Truscomb ten dollars," he said to himself, as the lift lowered him to the factory door; but another voice argued that he had no right to accuse Disbrow of acting as his brother-in-law's agent, when the gift to Mrs. Dillon might have been prompted by his own kindness of heart.
"And what prompted the lie about her husband? Well, perhaps he's an incurable optimist," he summed up, springing into the Hanaford car.
By the time he reached Mrs. Westmore's door his wrath had subsided, and he felt that he had himself well in hand. He had taken unusual pains with his appearance that morning—or rather his mother, learning of the errand on which Truscomb had sent him, had laid out his carefully-brushed Sunday clothes, and adjusted his tie with skilful fingers. "You'd really be handsome, Johnny, if you were only a little vainer," she said, pushing him away to survey the result; and when he stared at her, repeating: "I never heard that vanity made a man better-looking," she responded gaily: "Oh, up to a certain point, because it teaches him how to use what he's got. So remember," she charged him, as he smiled and took up his hat, "that you're going to see a pretty young woman, and that you're not a hundred years old yourself."
"I'll try to," he answered, humouring her, "but as I've been forbidden to ask for her, I am afraid your efforts will be wasted."
The servant to whom he gave his message showed him into the library, with a request that he should wait; and there, to his surprise, he found, not the white-moustached gentleman whom he had guessed the night before to be Mr. Langhope, but a young lady in deep black, who turned on him a look of not unfriendly enquiry.
It was not Bessy's habit to anticipate the clock; but her distaste for her surroundings, and the impatience to have done with the tedious duties awaiting her, had sent her downstairs before the rest of the party. Her life had been so free from tiresome obligations that she had but a small stock of patience to meet them with; and already, after a night at Hanaford, she was pining to get back to the comforts of her own country-house, the soft rut of her daily habits, the funny chatter of her little girl, the long stride of her Irish hunter across the Hempstead plains—to everything, in short, that made it conceivably worth while to get up in the morning.
The servant who ushered in Amherst, thinking the room empty, had not mentioned his name; and for a moment he and his hostess examined each other in silence, Bessy puzzled at the unannounced appearance of a good-looking young man who might have been some one she had met and forgotten, while Amherst felt his self-possession slipping away into the depths of a pair of eyes so dark-lashed and deeply blue that his only thought was one of wonder at his previous indifference to women's eyes.
"Mrs. Westmore?" he asked, restored to self-command by the perception that his longed-for opportunity was at hand; and Bessy, his voice confirming the inference she had drawn from his appearance, replied with a smile: "I am Mrs. Westmore. But if you have come to see me, I ought to tell you that in a moment I shall be obliged to go out to our mills. I have a business appointment with our manager, but if——"
She broke off, gracefully waiting for him to insert his explanation.
"I have come from the manager; I am John Amherst—your assistant manager," he added, as the mention of his name apparently conveyed no enlightenment.
Mrs. Westmore's face changed, and she let slip a murmur of surprise that would certainly have flattered Amherst's mother if she could have heard it; but it had an opposite effect on the young man, who inwardly accused himself of having tried to disguise his trade by not putting on his everyday clothes.
"How stupid of me! I took you for—I had no idea; I didn't expect Mr. Truscomb here," his employer faltered in embarrassment; then their eyes met and both smiled.
"Mr. Truscomb sent me to tell you that he is ill, and will not be able to show you the mills today. I didn't mean to ask for you—I was told to give the message to Mr. Langhope," Amherst scrupulously explained, trying to repress the sudden note of joy in his voice.
He was subject to the unobservant man's acute flashes of vision, and Mrs. Westmore's beauty was like a blinding light abruptly turned on eyes subdued to obscurity. As he spoke, his glance passed from her face to her hair, and remained caught in its meshes. He had never seen such hair—it did not seem to grow in the usual orderly way, but bubbled up all over her head in independent clusters of brightness, breaking, about the brow, the temples, the nape, into little irrelevant waves and eddies of light, with dusky hollows of softness where the hand might plunge. It takes but the throb of a nerve to carry such a complex impression from the eye to the mind, but the object of the throb had perhaps felt the electric flash of its passage, for her colour rose while Amherst spoke.
"Ah, here is my father now," she said with a vague accent of relief, as Mr. Langhope's stick was heard tapping its way across the hall.
When he entered, accompanied by Mrs. Ansell, his sharp glance of surprise at her visitor told her that he was as much misled as herself, and gave her a sense of being agreeably justified in her blunder. "If father thinks you're a gentleman——" her shining eyes seemed to say, as she explained: "This is Mr. Amherst, father: Mr. Truscomb has sent him."
"Mr. Amherst?" Langhope, with extended hand, echoed affably but vaguely; and it became clear that neither Mrs. Westmore nor her father had ever before heard the name of their assistant manager.
The discovery stung Amherst to a somewhat unreasoning resentment; and while he was trying to subordinate this sentiment to the larger feelings with which he had entered the house, Mrs. Ansell, turning her eyes on him, said gently: "Your name is unusual. I had a friend named Lucy Warne who married a very clever man—a mechanical genius——"
Amherst's face cleared. "My father was a genius; and my mother is Lucy Warne," he said, won by the soft look and the persuasive voice.
"What a delightful coincidence! We were girls together at Albany. You must remember Judge Warne?" she said, turning to Mr. Langhope, who, twirling his white moustache, murmured, a shade less cordially: "Of course—of course—delightful—most interesting."
Amherst did not notice the difference. His perceptions were already enveloped in the caress that emanated from Mrs. Ansell's voice and smile; and he only asked himself vaguely if it were possible that this graceful woman, with her sunny autumnal air, could really be his mother's contemporary. But the question brought an instant reaction of bitterness.
"Poverty is the only thing that makes people old nowadays," he reflected, painfully conscious of his own share in the hardships his mother had endured; and when Mrs. Ansell went on: "I must go and see her—you must let me take her by surprise," he said stiffly: "We live out at the mills, a long way from here."
"Oh, we're going there this morning," she rejoined, unrebuffed by what she probably took for a mere social awkwardness, while Mrs. Westmore interposed: "But, Maria, Mr. Truscomb is ill, and has sent Mr. Amherst to say that we are not to come."
"Yes: so Gaines has just telephoned. It's most unfortunate," Mr. Langhope grumbled. He too was already beginning to chafe at the uncongenial exile of Hanaford, and he shared his daughter's desire to despatch the tiresome business before them.
Mr. Tredegar had meanwhile appeared, and when Amherst had been named to him, and had received his Olympian nod, Bessy anxiously imparted her difficulty.
"But how ill is Mr. Truscomb? Do you think he can take us over the mills tomorrow?" she appealed to Amherst.
"I'm afraid not; I am sure he can't. He has a touch of bronchitis."
This announcement was met by a general outcry, in which sympathy for the manager was not the predominating note. Mrs. Ansell saved the situation by breathing feelingly: "Poor man!" and after a decent echo of the phrase, and a doubtful glance at her father, Mrs. Westmore said: "If it's bronchitis he may be ill for days, and what in the world are we to do?"
"Pack up and come back later," suggested Mr. Langhope briskly; but while Bessy sighed "Oh, that dreadful journey!" Mr. Tredegar interposed with authority: "One moment, Langhope, please. Mr. Amherst, is Mrs. Westmore expected at the mills?"
"Yes, I believe they know she is coming."
"Then I think, my dear, that to go back to New York without showing yourself would, under the circumstances, be—er—an error in judgment."
"Good Lord, Tredegar, you don't expect to keep us kicking our heels here for days?" her father ejaculated.
"I can certainly not afford to employ mine in that manner for even a fraction of a day," rejoined the lawyer, always acutely resentful of the suggestion that he had a disengaged moment; "but meanwhile——"
"Father," Bessy interposed, with an eagerly flushing cheek, "don't you see that the only thing for us to do is to go over the mills now—at once—with Mr. Amherst?"
Mr. Langhope stared: he was always adventurously ready to unmake plans, but it flustered him to be called on to remake them. "Eh—what? Now—at once? But Gaines was to have gone with us, and how on earth are we to get at him? He telephoned me that, as the visit was given up, he should ride out to his farm."
"Oh, never mind—or, at least, all the better!" his daughter urged. "We can see the mills just as well without him; and we shall get on so much more quickly."
"Well—well—what do you say, Tredegar?" murmured Mr. Langhope, allured by her last argument; and Bessy, clasping her hands, summed up enthusiastically: "And I shall understand so much better without a lot of people trying to explain to me at once!"
Her sudden enthusiasm surprised no one, for even Mrs. Ansell, expert as she was in the interpreting of tones, set it down to the natural desire to have done as quickly as might be with Hanaford.
"Mrs. Westmore has left her little girl at home," she said to Amherst, with a smile intended to counteract the possible ill-effect of the impression.
But Amherst suspected no slight in his employer's eagerness to visit Westmore. His overmastering thought was one of joy as the fulness of his opportunity broke on him. To show her the mills himself—to bring her face to face with her people, unhampered by Truscomb's jealous vigilance, and Truscomb's false explanations; to see the angel of pity stir the depths of those unfathomable eyes, when they rested, perhaps for the first time, on suffering that it was in their power to smile away as easily as they had smiled away his own distrust—all this the wonderful moment had brought him, and thoughts and arguments thronged so hot on his lips that he kept silence, fearing lest he should say too much.
JOHN AMHERST was no one-sided idealist. He felt keenly the growing complexity of the relation between employer and worker, the seeming hopelessness of permanently harmonizing their claims, the recurring necessity of fresh compromises and adjustments. He hated rant, demagogy, the rash formulating of emotional theories; and his contempt for bad logic and subjective judgments led him to regard with distrust the panaceas offered for the cure of economic evils. But his heart ached for the bitter throes with which the human machine moves on. He felt the menace of industrial conditions when viewed collectively, their poignancy when studied in the individual lives of the toilers among whom his lot was cast; and clearly as he saw the need of a philosophic survey of the question, he was sure that only through sympathy with its personal, human side could a solution be reached. The disappearance of the old familiar contact between master and man seemed to him one of the great wrongs of the new industrial situation. That the breach must be farther widened by the ultimate substitution of the stock-company for the individual employer—a fact obvious to any student of economic tendencies—presented to Amherst's mind one of the most painful problems in the scheme of social readjustment. But it was characteristic of him to dwell rather on the removal of immediate difficulties than in the contemplation of those to come, and while the individual employer was still to be reckoned with, the main thing was to bring him closer to his workers. Till he entered personally into their hardships and aspirations—till he learned what they wanted and why they wanted it—Amherst believed that no mere law-making, however enlightened, could create a wholesome relation between the two.
This feeling was uppermost as he sat with Mrs. Westmore in the carriage which was carrying them to the mills. He had meant to take the trolley back to Westmore, but at a murmured word from Mr. Tredegar Bessy had offered him a seat at her side, leaving others to follow. This culmination of his hopes—the unlooked-for chance of a half-hour alone with her—left Amherst oppressed with the swiftness of the minutes. He had so much to say—so much to prepare her for—yet how begin, while he was in utter ignorance of her character and her point of view, and while her lovely nearness left him so little chance of perceiving anything except itself?
But he was not often the victim of his sensations, and presently there emerged, out of the very consciousness of her grace and her completeness, a clearer sense of the conditions which, in a measure, had gone to produce them. Her dress could not have hung in such subtle folds, her white chin have nestled in such rich depths of fur, the pearls in her ears have given back the light from such pure curves, if thin shoulders in shapeless gingham had not bent, day in, day out, above the bobbins and carders, and weary ears throbbed even at night with the tumult of the looms. Amherst, however, felt no sensational resentment at the contrast. He had lived too much with ugliness and want not to believe in human nature's abiding need of their opposite. He was glad there was room for such beauty in the world, and sure that its purpose was an ameliorating one, if only it could be used as a beautiful spirit would use it.
The carriage had turned into one of the nondescript thoroughfares, half incipient street, half decaying lane, which dismally linked the mill-village to Hanaford. Bessy looked out on the ruts, the hoardings, the starved trees dangling their palsied leaves in the radiant October light; then she sighed: "What a good day for a gallop!"
Amherst felt a momentary chill, but the naturalness of the exclamation disarmed him, and the words called up thrilling memories of his own college days, when he had ridden his grandfather's horses in the famous hunting valley not a hundred miles from Hanaford.
Bessy met his smile with a glow of understanding. "You like riding too, I'm sure?"
"I used to; but I haven't been in the saddle for years. Factory managers don't keep hunters," he said laughing.
Her murmur of embarrassment showed that she took this as an apologetic allusion to his reduced condition, and in his haste to correct this impression he added: "If I regretted anything in my other life, it would certainly be a gallop on a day like this; but I chose my trade deliberately, and I've never been sorry for my choice."
He had hardly spoken when he felt the inappropriateness of this avowal; but her prompt response showed him, a moment later, that it was, after all, the straightest way to his end.
"You find the work interesting? I'm sure it must be. You'll think me very ignorant—my husband and I came here so seldom...I feel as if I ought to know so much more about it," she explained.
At last the note for which he waited had been struck. "Won't you try to—now you're here? There's so much worth knowing," he broke out impetuously.
Mrs. Westmore coloured, but rather with surprise than displeasure. "I'm very stupid—I've no head for business—but I will try to," she said.
"It's not business that I mean; it's the personal relation—just the thing the business point of view leaves out. Financially, I don't suppose your mills could be better run; but there are over seven hundred women working in them, and there's so much to be done, just for them and their children."
He caught a faint hint of withdrawal in her tone. "I have always understood that Mr. Truscomb did everything——"
Amherst flushed; but he was beyond caring for the personal rebuff. "Do you leave it to your little girl's nurses to do everything for her?" he asked.
Her surprise seemed about to verge on annoyance: he saw the preliminary ruffling of the woman who is put to the trouble of defending her dignity. "Really, I don't see—" she began with distant politeness; then her face changed and melted, and again her blood spoke for her before her lips.
"I am glad you told me that, Mr. Amherst. Of course I want to do whatever I can. I should like you to point out everything——"
Amherst's resolve had been taken while she spoke. He would point out everything, would stretch his opportunity to its limit. All thoughts of personal prudence were flung to the winds—her blush and tone had routed the waiting policy. He would declare war on Truscomb at once, and take the chance of dismissal. At least, before he went he would have brought this exquisite creature face to face with the wrongs from which her luxuries were drawn, and set in motion the regenerating impulses of indignation and pity. He did not stop to weigh the permanent advantage of this course. His only feeling was that the chance would never again be given him—that if he let her go away, back to her usual life, with eyes unopened and heart untouched, there would be no hope of her ever returning. It was far better that he should leave for good, and that she should come back, as come back she must, more and more often, if once she could be made to feel the crying need of her presence.
But where was he to begin? How give her even a glimpse of the packed and intricate situation?
"Mrs. Westmore," he said, "there's no time to say much now, but before we get to the mills I want to ask you a favour. If, as you go through them, you see anything that seems to need explaining, will you let me come and tell you about it tonight? I say tonight," he added, meeting her look of enquiry, "because later—tomorrow even—I might not have the chance. There are some things—a good many—in the management of the mills that Mr. Truscomb doesn't see as I do. I don't mean business questions: wages and dividends and so on—those are out of my province. I speak merely in the line of my own work—my care of the hands, and what I believe they need and don't get under the present system. Naturally, if Mr. Truscomb were well, I shouldn't have had this chance of putting the case to you; but since it's come my way, I must seize it and take the consequences."
Even as he spoke, by a swift reaction of thought, those consequences rose before him in all their seriousness. It was not only, or chiefly, that he feared to lose his place; though he knew his mother had not spoken lightly in instancing the case of the foreman whom Truscomb, to gratify a personal spite, had for months kept out of a job in his trade. And there were special reasons why Amherst should heed her warning. In adopting a manual trade, instead of one of the gentlemanly professions which the men of her family had always followed, he had not only disappointed her hopes, and to a great extent thrown away the benefits of the education she had pinched herself to give him, but had disturbed all the habits of her life by removing her from her normal surroundings to the depressing exile of a factory-settlement. However much he blamed himself for exacting this sacrifice, it had been made so cheerfully that the consciousness of it never clouded his life with his mother; but her self-effacement made him the more alive to his own obligations, and having placed her in a difficult situation he had always been careful not to increase its difficulties by any imprudence in his conduct toward his employers. Yet, grave as these considerations were, they were really less potent than his personal desire to remain at Westmore. Lightly as he had just resolved to risk the chance of dismissal, all his future was bound up in the hope of retaining his place. His heart was in the work at Westmore, and the fear of not being able to get other employment was a small factor in his intense desire to keep his post. What he really wanted was to speak out, and yet escape the consequences: by some miraculous reversal of probability to retain his position and yet effect Truscomb's removal. The idea was so fantastic that he felt it merely as a quickening of all his activities, a tremendous pressure of will along undetermined lines. He had no wish to take the manager's place; but his dream was to see Truscomb superseded by a man of the new school, in sympathy with the awakening social movement—a man sufficiently practical to "run" the mills successfully, yet imaginative enough to regard that task as the least of his duties. He saw the promise of such a man in Louis Duplain, the overseer who boarded with Mrs. Amherst: a young fellow of Alsatian extraction, a mill-hand from childhood, who had worked at his trade in Europe as well as in America, and who united with more manual skill, and a greater nearness to the workman's standpoint, all Amherst's enthusiasm for the experiments in social betterment that were making in some of the English and continental factories. His strongest wish was to see such a man as Duplain in control at Westmore before he himself turned to the larger work which he had begun to see before him as the sequel to his factory-training.
All these thoughts swept through him in the instant's pause before Mrs. Westmore, responding to his last appeal, said with a graceful eagerness: "Yes, you must come tonight. I want to hear all you can tell me—and if there is anything wrong you must show me how I can make it better."
"I'll show her, and Truscomb shan't turn me out for it," was the vow he passionately registered as the carriage drew up at the office-door of the main building.
How this impossible result was to be achieved he had no farther time to consider, for in another moment the rest of the party had entered the factory with them, and speech was followed up in the roar of the machinery.
Amherst's zeal for his cause was always quickened by the sight of the mills in action. He loved the work itself as much as he hated the conditions under which it was done; and he longed to see on the operatives' faces something of the ardour that lit up his own when he entered the work-rooms. It was this passion for machinery that at school had turned him from his books, at college had drawn him to the courses least in the line of his destined profession; and it always seized on him afresh when he was face to face with the monstrous energies of the mills. It was not only the sense of power that thrilled him—he felt a beauty in the ordered activity of the whole intricate organism, in the rhythm of dancing bobbins and revolving cards, the swift continuous outpour of doublers and ribbon-laps, the steady ripple of the long ply-frames, the terrible gnashing play of the looms—all these varying subordinate motions, gathered up into the throb of the great engines which fed the giant's arteries, and were in turn ruled by the invisible action of quick thought and obedient hands, always produced in Amherst a responsive rush of life.
He knew this sensation was too specialized to affect his companions; but he expected Mrs. Westmore to be all the more alive to the other side—the dark side of monotonous human toil, of the banquet of flesh and blood and brain perpetually served up to the monster whose insatiable jaws the looms so grimly typified. Truscomb, as he had told her, was a good manager from the profit-taking standpoint. Since it was profitable to keep the machinery in order, he maintained throughout the factory a high standard of mechanical supervision, except where one or two favoured overseers—for Truscomb was given to favoritism—shirked the duties of their departments. But it was of the essence of Truscomb's policy—and not the least of the qualities which made him a "paying" manager—that he saved money scrupulously where its outlay would not have resulted in larger earnings. To keep the floors scrubbed, the cotton-dust swept up, the rooms freshly whitewashed and well-ventilated, far from adding the smallest fraction to the quarterly dividends, would have deducted from them the slight cost of this additional labour; and Truscomb therefore economized on scrubbers, sweepers and window-washers, and on all expenses connected with improved ventilation and other hygienic precautions. Though the whole factory was over-crowded, the newest buildings were more carefully planned, and had the usual sanitary improvements; but the old mills had been left in their original state, and even those most recently built were fast lapsing into squalor. It was no wonder, therefore, that workers imprisoned within such walls should reflect their long hours of deadening toil in dull eyes and anaemic skins, and in the dreary lassitude with which they bent to their tasks.
Surely, Amherst argued, Mrs. Westmore must feel this; must feel it all the more keenly, coming from an atmosphere so different, from a life where, as he instinctively divined, all was in harmony with her own graceful person. But a deep disappointment awaited him. He was still under the spell of their last moments in the carriage, when her face and voice had promised so much, when she had seemed so deeply, if vaguely, stirred by his appeal. But as they passed from one resounding room to the other—from the dull throb of the carding-room, the groan of the ply-frames, the long steady pound of the slashers, back to the angry shriek of the fierce unappeasable looms—the light faded from her eyes and she looked merely bewildered and stunned.
Amherst, hardened to the din of the factory, could not measure its effect on nerves accustomed to the subdued sounds and spacious stillnesses which are the last refinement of luxury. Habit had made him unconscious of that malicious multiplication and subdivision of noise that kept every point of consciousness vibrating to a different note, so that while one set of nerves was torn as with pincers by the dominant scream of the looms, others were thrilled with a separate pain by the ceaseless accompaniment of drumming, hissing, grating and crashing that shook the great building. Amherst felt this tumult only as part of the atmosphere of the mills; and to ears trained like his own he could make his voice heard without difficulty. But his attempts at speech were unintelligible to Mrs. Westmore and her companions, and after vainly trying to communicate with him by signs they hurried on as if to escape as quickly as possible from the pursuing whirlwind.
Amherst could not allow for the depressing effect of this enforced silence. He did not see that if Bessy could have questioned him the currents of sympathy might have remained open between them, whereas, compelled to walk in silence through interminable ranks of meaningless machines, to which the human workers seemed mere automatic appendages, she lost all perception of what the scene meant. He had forgotten, too, that the swift apprehension of suffering in others is as much the result of training as the immediate perception of beauty. Both perceptions may be inborn, but if they are not they can be developed only through the discipline of experience.
"That girl in the hospital would have seen it all," he reflected, as the vision of Miss Brent's small incisive profile rose before him; but the next moment he caught the light on Mrs. Westmore's hair, as she bent above a card, and the paler image faded like a late moon in the sunrise.
Meanwhile Mrs. Ansell, seeing that the detailed inspection of the buildings was as trying to Mr. Langhope's lameness as to his daughter's nerves, had proposed to turn back with him and drive to Mrs. Amherst's, where he might leave her to call while the others were completing their rounds. It was one of Mrs. Ansell's gifts to detect the first symptoms of ennui in her companions, and produce a remedy as patly as old ladies whisk out a scent-bottle or a cough-lozenge; and Mr. Langhope's look of relief showed the timeliness of her suggestion.
Amherst was too preoccupied to wonder how his mother would take this visit; but he welcomed Mr. Langhope's departure, hoping that the withdrawal of his ironic smile would leave his daughter open to gentler influences. Mr. Tredegar, meanwhile, was projecting his dry glance over the scene, trying to converse by signs with the overseers of the different rooms, and pausing now and then to contemplate, not so much the workers themselves as the special tasks which engaged them.
How these spectators of the party's progress were affected by Mrs. Westmore's appearance, even Amherst, for all his sympathy with their views, could not detect. They knew that she was the new owner, that a disproportionate amount of the result of their toil would in future pass through her hands, spread carpets for her steps, and hang a setting of beauty about her eyes; but the knowledge seemed to produce no special interest in her personality. A change of employer was not likely to make any change in their lot: their welfare would probably continue to depend on Truscomb's favour. The men hardly raised their heads as Mrs. Westmore passed; the women stared, but with curiosity rather than interest; and Amherst could not tell whether their sullenness reacted on Mrs. Westmore, or whether they were unconsciously chilled by her indifference. The result was the same: the distance between them seemed to increase instead of diminishing; and he smiled ironically to think of the form his appeal had taken—"If you see anything that seems to need explaining." Why, she saw nothing—nothing but the greasy floor under her feet, the cotton-dust in her eyes, the dizzy incomprehensible whirring of innumerable belts and wheels! Once out of it all, she would make haste to forget the dreary scene without pausing to ask for any explanation of its dreariness.
In the intensity of his disappointment he sought a pretext to cut short the tour of the buildings, that he might remove his eyes from the face he had so vainly watched for any sign of awakening. And then, as he despaired of it, the change came.
They had entered the principal carding-room, and were half-way down its long central passage, when Mr. Tredegar, who led the procession, paused before one of the cards.
"What's that?" he asked, pointing to a ragged strip of black cloth tied conspicuously to the frame of the card.
The overseer of the room, a florid young man with dissipated eyes, who, at Amherst's signal, had attached himself to the party, stopped short and turned a furious glance on the surrounding operatives.
"What in hell...? It's the first I seen of it," he exclaimed, making an ineffectual attempt to snatch the mourning emblem from its place.
At the same instant the midday whistle boomed through the building, and at the signal the machinery stopped, and silence fell on the mills. The more distant workers at once left their posts to catch up the hats and coats heaped untidily in the corners; but those nearer by, attracted by the commotion around the card, stood spell-bound, fixing the visitors with a dull stare.
Amherst had reddened to the roots of his hair. He knew in a flash what the token signified, and the sight stirred his pity; but it also jarred on his strong sense of discipline, and he turned sternly to the operatives.
"What does this mean?"
There was a short silence; then one of the hands, a thin bent man with mystic eyes, raised his head and spoke.
"We done that for Dillon," he said.
Amherst's glance swept the crowded faces. "But Dillon was not killed," he exclaimed, while the overseer, drawing out his pen-knife, ripped off the cloth and tossed it contemptuously into a heap of cotton-refuse at his feet.
"Might better ha' been," came from another hand; and a deep "That's so" of corroboration ran through the knot of workers.
Amherst felt a touch on his arm, and met Mrs. Westmore's eyes. "What has happened? What do they mean?" she asked in a startled voice.
"There was an accident here two days ago: a man got caught in the card behind him, and his right hand was badly crushed."
Mr. Tredegar intervened with his dry note of command. "How serious is the accident? How did it happen?" he enquired.
"Through the man's own carelessness—ask the manager," the overseer interposed before Amherst could answer.
A deep murmur of dissent ran through the crowd, but Amherst, without noticing the overseer's reply, said to Mr. Tredegar: "He's at the Hope Hospital. He will lose his hand, and probably the whole arm."
He had not meant to add this last phrase. However strongly his sympathies were aroused, it was against his rule, at such a time, to say anything which might inflame the quick passions of the workers: he had meant to make light of the accident, and dismiss the operatives with a sharp word of reproof. But Mrs. Westmore's face was close to his: he saw the pity in her eyes, and feared, if he checked its expression, that he might never again have the chance of calling it forth.
"His right arm? How terrible! But then he will never be able to work again!" she exclaimed, in all the horror of a first confrontation with the inexorable fate of the poor.
Her eyes turned from Amherst and rested on the faces pressing about her. There were many women's faces among them—the faces of fagged middle-age, and of sallow sedentary girlhood. For the first time Mrs. Westmore seemed to feel the bond of blood between herself and these dim creatures of the underworld: as Amherst watched her the lovely miracle was wrought. Her pallour gave way to a quick rush of colour, her eyes widened like a frightened child's, and two tears rose and rolled slowly down her face.
"Oh, why wasn't I told? Is he married? Has he children? What does it matter whose fault it was?" she cried, her questions pouring out disconnectedly on a wave of anger and compassion.
"It warn't his fault.... The cards are too close.... It'll happen again.... He's got three kids at home," broke from the operatives; and suddenly a voice exclaimed "Here's his wife now," and the crowd divided to make way for Mrs. Dillon, who, passing through the farther end of the room, had been waylaid and dragged toward the group.
She hung back, shrinking from the murderous machine, which she beheld for the first time since her husband's accident; then she saw Amherst, guessed the identity of the lady at his side, and flushed up to her haggard forehead. Mrs. Dillon had been good-looking in her earlier youth, and sufficient prettiness lingered in her hollow-cheeked face to show how much more had been sacrificed to sickness and unwholesome toil.
"Oh, ma'am, ma'am, it warn't Jim's fault—there ain't a steadier man living. The cards is too crowded," she sobbed out.
Some of the other women began to cry: a wave of sympathy ran through the circle, and Mrs. Westmore moved forward with an answering exclamation. "You poor creature...you poor creature...." She opened her arms to Mrs. Dillon, and the scrubber's sobs were buried on her employer's breast.
"I will go to the hospital—I will come and see you—I will see that everything is done," Bessy reiterated. "But why are you here? How is it that you have had to leave your children?" She freed herself to turn a reproachful glance on Amherst. "You don't mean to tell me that, at such a time, you keep the poor woman at work?"
"Mrs. Dillon has not been working here lately," Amherst answered. "The manager took her back to-day at her own request, that she might earn something while her husband was in hospital."
Mrs. Westmore's eyes shone indignantly. "Earn something? But surely——"
She met a silencing look from Mr. Tredegar, who had stepped between Mrs. Dillon and herself.
"My dear child, no one doubts—none of these good people doubt—that you will look into the case, and do all you can to alleviate it; but let me suggest that this is hardly the place——"
She turned from him with an appealing glance at Amherst.
"I think," the latter said, as their eyes met, "that you had better let me dismiss the hands: they have only an hour at midday."
She signed her assent, and he turned to the operatives and said quietly: "You have heard Mrs. Westmore's promise; now take yourselves off, and give her a clear way to the stairs."
They dropped back, and Mr. Tredegar drew Bessy's arm through his; but as he began to move away she turned and laid her hand on Mrs. Dillon's shoulder.
"You must not stay here—you must go back to the children. I will make it right with Mr. Truscomb," she said in a reassuring whisper; then, through her tears, she smiled a farewell at the lingering knot of operatives, and followed her companions to the door.
In silence they descended the many stairs and crossed the shabby unfenced grass-plot between the mills and the manager's office. It was not till they reached the carriage that Mrs. Westmore spoke.
"But Maria is waiting for us—we must call for her!" she said, rousing herself; and as Amherst opened the carriage-door she added: "You will show us the way? You will drive with us?"
During the drive Bessy remained silent, as if re-absorbed in the distress of the scene she had just witnessed; and Amherst found himself automatically answering Mr. Tredegar's questions, while his own mind had no room for anything but the sense of her tremulous lips and of her eyes enlarged by tears. He had been too much engrossed in the momentous issues of her visit to the mills to remember that she had promised to call at his mother's for Mrs. Ansell; but now that they were on their way thither he found himself wishing that the visit might have been avoided. He was too proud of his mother to feel any doubt of the impression she would produce; but what would Mrs. Westmore think of their way of living, of the cheap jauntiness of the cottage, and the smell of cooking penetrating all its thin partitions? Duplain, too, would be coming in for dinner; and Amherst, in spite of his liking for the young overseer, became conscious of a rather overbearing freedom in his manner, the kind of misplaced ease which the new-made American affects as the readiest sign of equality. All these trifles, usually non-existent or supremely indifferent to Amherst, now assumed a sudden importance, behind which he detected the uneasy desire that Mrs. Westmore should not regard him as less of her own class than his connections and his bringing-up entitled him to be thought. In a flash he saw what he had forfeited by his choice of a calling—equal contact with the little circle of people who gave life its crowning grace and facility; and the next moment he was blushing at this reversal of his standards, and wondering, almost contemptuously, what could be the nature of the woman whose mere presence could produce such a change.
But there was no struggling against her influence; and as, the night before, he had looked at Westmore with the nurse's eyes, so he now found himself seeing his house as it must appear to Mrs. Westmore. He noticed the shabby yellow paint of the palings, the neglected garden of their neighbour, the week's wash flaunting itself indecently through the denuded shrubs about the kitchen porch; and as he admitted his companions to the narrow passage he was assailed by the expected whiff of "boiled dinner," with which the steam of wash-tubs was intimately mingled.
Duplain was in the passage; he had just come out of the kitchen, and the fact that he had been washing his hands in the sink was made evident by his rolled-back shirt-sleeves, and by the shiny redness of the knuckles he was running through his stiff black hair.