Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXVI

WITHIN Justine there was a moment’s darkness; then, like terror-struck workers rallying to their tasks, every faculty was again at its post, receiving and transmitting signals, taking observations, anticipating orders, making her brain ring with the hum of a controlled activity.

She had known the sensation before — the transmuting of terror and pity into this miraculous lucidity of thought and action; but never had it snatched her from such depths. Oh, thank heaven for her knowledge now — for the trained mind that could take command of her senses and bend them firmly to its service!

Wyant seconded her well, after a moment’s ague-fit of fear. She pitied and pardoned the moment, aware of its cause, and respecting him for the way in which he rose above it into the clear air of professional self-command. Through the first hours they worked shoulder to shoulder, conscious of each other only as of kindred will-powers, stretched to the utmost tension of discernment and activity, and hardly needing speech or look to further their swift co-operation. It was thus that she had known him in the hospital, in the heat of his youthful zeal: the doctor she liked best to work with, because no other so tempered ardour with judgment.

The great surgeon, arriving from town at midnight, confirmed his diagnosis: there was undoubted injury to the spine. Other consultants were summoned in haste, and in the winter dawn the verdict was pronounced — a fractured vertebra, and possibly lesion of the cord. . . .

Justine got a moment alone when the surgeons returned to the sick-room. Other nurses were there now, capped, aproned, quickly and silently unpacking their appliances. . . . She must call a halt, clear her brain again, decide rapidly what was to be done next. . . . Oh, if only the crawling hours could bring Amherst! It was strange that there was no telegram yet — no, not strange, after all, since it was barely six in the morning, and her message had not been despatched till seven the night before. It was not unlikely that, in that little southern settlement, the telegraph office closed at six.

She stood in Bessy’s sitting-room, her forehead pressed to the window-pane, her eyes straining out into the thin February darkness, through which the morning star swam white. As soon as she had yielded her place to the other nurses her nervous tension relaxed, and she hung again above the deeps of anguish, terrified and weak. In a moment the necessity for action would snatch her back to a firm footing — her thoughts would clear, her will affirm itself, all the wheels of the complex machine resume their functions. But now she felt only the horror. . . .

She knew so well what was going on in the next room. Dr. Garford, the great surgeon, who had known her at Saint Elizabeth’s, had evidently expected her to take command of the nurses he had brought from town; but there were enough without her, and there were other cares which, for the moment, she only could assume — the despatching of messages to the scattered family, the incessant telephoning and telegraphing to town, the general guidance of the household swinging rudderless in the tide of disaster. Cicely, above all, must be watched over and guarded from alarm. The little governess, reduced to a twittering heap of fears, had been quarantined in a distant room till reason returned to her; and the child, meanwhile, slept quietly in the old nurse’s care.

Cicely would wake presently, and Justine must go up to her with a bright face; other duties would press thick on the heels of this; their feet were already on the threshold. But meanwhile she could only follow in imagination what was going on in the other room. . . .

She had often thought with dread of such a contingency. She always sympathized too much with her patients — she knew it was the joint in her armour. Her quick-gushing pity lay too near that professional exterior which she had managed to endue with such a bright glaze of insensibility that some sentimental patients — without much the matter — had been known to call her “a little hard.” How, then, should she steel herself if it fell to her lot to witness a cruel accident to some one she loved, and to have to perform a nurse’s duties, steadily, expertly, unflinchingly, while every fibre was torn with inward anguish?

She knew the horror of it now — and she knew also that her self-enforced exile from the sick-room was a hundred times worse. To stand there, knowing, with each tick of the clock, what was being said and done within — how the great luxurious room, with its pale draperies and scented cushions, and the hundred pretty trifles strewing the lace toilet-table and the delicate old furniture, was being swept bare, cleared for action like a ship’s deck, drearily garnished with rows of instruments, rolls of medicated cotton, oiled silk, bottles, bandages, water-pillows — all the grim paraphernalia of the awful rites of pain: to know this, and to be able to call up with torturing vividness that poor pale face on the pillows, vague-eyed, expressionless, perhaps, as she had last seen it, or — worse yet — stirred already with the first creeping pangs of consciousness: to have these images slowly, deliberately burn themselves into her brain, and to be aware, at the same time, of that underlying moral disaster, of which the accident seemed the monstrous outward symbol — ah, this was worse than anything she had ever dreamed!

She knew that the final verdict could not be pronounced till the operation which was about to take place should reveal the extent of injury to the spine. Bessy, in falling, must have struck on the back of her head and shoulders, and it was but too probable that the fractured vertebra had caused a bruise if not a lesion of the spinal cord. In that case paralysis was certain — and a slow crawling death the almost inevitable outcome. There had been cases, of course — Justine’s professional memory evoked them — cases of so-called “recovery,” where actual death was kept at bay, a semblance of life preserved for years in the poor petrified body. . . . But the mind shrank from such a fate for Bessy. And it might still be that the injury to the spine was not grave — though, here again, the fracturing of the fourth vertebra was ominous.

The door opened and some one came from the inner room — Wyant, in search of an instrument-case. Justine turned and they looked at each other.

“It will be now?”

“Yes. Dr. Garford asked if there was no one you could send for.”

“No one but Mr. Tredegar and the Halford Gaineses. They’ll be here this evening, I suppose.”

They exchanged a discouraged glance, knowing how little difference the presence of the Halford Gaineses would make.

“He wanted to know if there was no telegram from Amherst.”

“No.”

“Then they mean to begin.”

A nursemaid appeared in the doorway. “Miss Cicely — ” she said; and Justine bounded upstairs.

The day’s work had begun. From Cicely to the governess — from the governess to the housekeeper — from the telephone to the writing-table — Justine vibrated back and forth, quick, noiseless, self-possessed — sobering, guiding, controlling her confused and panic-stricken world. It seemed to her that half the day had elapsed before the telegraph office at Lynbrook opened — she was at the telephone at the stroke of the hour. No telegram? Only one — a message from Halford Gaines — “Arrive at eight tonight.” Amherst was still silent! Was there a difference of time to be allowed for? She tried to remember, to calculate, but her brain was too crowded with other thoughts. . . . She turned away from the instrument discouraged.

Whenever she had time to think, she was overwhelmed by the weight of her solitude. Mr. Langhope was in Egypt, accessible only through a London banker — Mrs. Ansell presumably wandering on the continent. Her cables might not reach them for days. And among the throng of Lynbrook habitués, she knew not to whom to turn. To loose the Telfer tribe and Mrs. Carbury upon that stricken house — her thought revolted from it, and she was thankful to know that February had dispersed their migratory flock to southern shores. But if only Amherst would come!

Cicely and the tranquillized governess had been despatched on a walk with the dogs, and Justine was returning upstairs when she met one of the servants with a telegram. She tore it open with a great throb of relief. It was her own message to Amherst — address unknown. . . .

Had she misdirected it, then? In that first blinding moment her mind might so easily have failed her. But no — there was the name of the town before her . . . Millfield, Georgia . . . the same name as in his letter. . . . She had made no mistake, but he was gone! Gone — and without leaving an address. . . . For a moment her tired mind refused to work; then she roused herself, ran down the stairs again, and rang up the telegraph-office. The thing to do, of course, was to telegraph to the owner of the mills — of whose very name she was ignorant! — enquiring where Amherst was, and asking him to forward the message. Precious hours must be lost meanwhile — but, after all, they were waiting for no one upstairs.

The verdict had been pronounced: dislocation and fracture of the fourth vertebra, with consequent injury to the spinal cord. Dr. Garford and Wyant came out alone to tell her. The surgeon ran over the technical details, her brain instantly at attention as he developed his diagnosis and issued his orders. She asked no questions as to the future — she knew it was impossible to tell. But there were no immediate signs of a fatal ending: the patient had rallied well, and the general conditions were not unfavourable.

“You have heard from Mr. Amherst?” Dr. Garford concluded.

“Not yet . . . he may be travelling,” Justine faltered, unwilling to say that her telegram had been returned. As she spoke there was a tap on the door, and a folded paper was handed in — a telegram telephoned from the village.

“Amherst gone South America to study possibilities cotton growing have cabled our correspondent Buenos Ayres.”

Concealment was no longer possible. Justine handed the message to the surgeon.

“Ah — and there would be no chance of finding his address among Mrs. Amherst’s papers?”

“I think not — no.”

“Well — we must keep her alive, Wyant.”

“Yes, sir.”

At dusk, Justine sat in the library, waiting for Cicely to be brought to her. A lull had descended on the house — a new order developed out of the morning’s chaos. With soundless steps, with lowered voices, the machinery of life was carried on. And Justine, caught in one of the pauses of inaction which she had fought off since morning, was reliving, for the hundredth time, her few moments at Bessy’s bedside. . . .

She had been summoned in the course of the afternoon, and stealing into the darkened room, had bent over the bed while the nurses noiselessly withdrew. There lay the white face which had been burnt into her inward vision — the motionless body, and the head stirring ceaselessly, as though to release the agitation of the imprisoned limbs. Bessy’s eyes turned to her, drawing her down.

“Am I going to die, Justine?”

“No.”

“The pain is . . . so awful. . . . ”

“It will pass . . . you will sleep. . . . ”

“Cicely —— ”

“She has gone for a walk. You’ll see her presently.”

The eyes faded, releasing Justine. She stole away, and the nurses came back.

Bessy had spoken of Cicely — but not a word of her husband! Perhaps her poor dazed mind groped for him, or perhaps it shrank from his name. . . . Justine was thankful for her silence. For the moment her heart was bitter against Amherst. Why, so soon after her appeal and his answer, had he been false to the spirit of their agreement? This unannounced, unexplained departure was nothing less than a breach of his tacit pledge — the pledge not to break definitely with Lynbrook. And why had he gone to South America? She drew her aching brows together, trying to retrace a vague memory of some allusion to the cotton-growing capabilities of the region. . . . Yes, he had spoken of it once in talking of the world’s area of cotton production. But what impulse had sent him off on such an exploration? Mere unrest, perhaps — the intolerable burden of his useless life? The questions spun round and round in her head, weary, profitless, yet persistent. . . .

It was a relief when Cicely came — a relief to measure out the cambric tea, to make the terrier beg for ginger-bread, even to take up the thread of the interrupted fairy-tale — though through it all she was wrung by the thought that, just twenty-four hours earlier, she and the child had sat in the same place, listening for the trot of Bessy’s horse. . . .

The day passed: the hands of the clocks moved, food was cooked and served, blinds were drawn up or down, lamps lit and fires renewed . . . all these tokens of the passage of time took place before her, while her real consciousness seemed to hang in some dim central void, where nothing happened, nothing would ever happen. . . .

And now Cicely was in bed, the last “long-distance” call was answered, the last orders to kitchen and stable had been despatched, Wyant had stolen down to her with his hourly report — “no change” — and she was waiting in the library for the Gaineses.

Carriage-wheels on the gravel: they were there at last. Justine started up and went into the hall. As she passed out of the library the outer door opened, and the gusty night swooped in — as, at the same hour the day before, it had swooped in ahead of the dreadful procession — preceding now the carriageful of Hanaford relations: Mr. Gaines, red-glazed, brief and interrogatory; Westy, small, nervous, ill at ease with his grief; and Mrs. Gaines, supreme in the possession of a consolatory yet funereal manner, and sinking on Justine’s breast with the solemn whisper: “Have you sent for the clergyman?”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30