Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXVII

THE house was empty again.

A week had passed since Bessy’s accident, and friends and relations had dispersed. The household had fallen into its routine, the routine of sickness and silence, and once more the perfectly-adjusted machine was working on steadily, inexorably, like a natural law. . . .

So at least it seemed to Justine’s nerves, intolerably stretched, at times, on the rack of solitude, of suspense, of forebodings. She had been thankful when the Gaineses left — doubly thankful when a telegram from Bermuda declared Mrs. Carbury to be “in despair” at her inability to fly to Bessy’s side — thankful even that Mr. Tredegar’s professional engagements made it impossible for him to do more than come down, every second or third day, for a few hours; yet, though in some ways it was a relief to be again in sole command, there were moments when the weight of responsibility, and the inability to cry out her fears and her uncertainties, seemed almost unendurable.

Wyant was her chief reliance. He had risen so gallantly above his weakness, become again so completely the indefatigable worker of former days, that she accused herself of injustice in ascribing to physical causes the vague eye and tremulous hand which might merely have betokened a passing access of nervous sensibility. Now, at any rate, he had his nerves so well under control, and had shown such a grasp of the case, and such marked executive capacity, that on the third day after the accident Dr. Garford, withdrawing his own assistant, had left him in control at Lynbrook.

At the same time Justine had taken up her attendance in the sick-room, replacing one of the subordinate nurses who had been suddenly called away. She had done this the more willingly because Bessy, who was now conscious for the greater part of the time, had asked for her once or twice, and had seemed easier when she was in the room. But she still gave only occasional aid, relieving the other nurses when they dined or rested, but keeping herself partly free in order to have an eye on the household, and give a few hours daily to Cicely.

All this had become part of a system that already seemed as old as memory. She could hardly recall what life had been before the accident — the seven dreadful days seemed as long as the days of creation. Every morning she rose to the same report — “no change” — and every day passed without a word from Amherst. Minor news, of course, had come: poor Mr. Langhope, at length overtaken at Wady Halfa, was hastening back as fast as ship and rail could carry him; Mrs. Ansell, anchored at Algiers with her invalid, cabled anxious enquiries; but still no word from Amherst. The correspondent at Buenos Ayres had simply cabled “Not here. Will enquire” — and since then, silence.

Justine had taken to sitting in a small room beyond Amherst’s bedroom, near enough to Bessy to be within call, yet accessible to the rest of the household. The walls were hung with old prints, and with two or three photographs of early Italian pictures; and in a low bookcase Amherst had put the books he had brought from Hanaford — the English poets, the Greek dramatists, some text-books of biology and kindred subjects, and a few stray well-worn volumes: Lecky’s European Morals, Carlyle’s translation of Wilhelm Meister, Seneca, Epictetus, a German grammar, a pocket Bacon.

It was unlike any other room at Lynbrook — even through her benumbing misery, Justine felt the relief of escaping there from the rest of the great soulless house. Sometimes she took up one of the books and read a page or two, letting the beat of the verse lull her throbbing brain, or the strong words of stoic wisdom sink into her heart. And even when there was no time for these brief flights from reality, it soothed her to feel herself in the presence of great thoughts — to know that in this room, among these books, another restless baffled mind had sought escape from the “dusty answer” of life. Her hours there made her think less bitterly of Amherst — but also, alas, made her see more clearly the irreconcilable difference between the two natures she had striven to reunite. That which was the essence of life to one was a meaningless shadow to the other; and the gulf between them was too wide for the imagination of either to bridge.

As she sat there on the seventh afternoon there was a knock on the door and Wyant entered. She had only time to notice that he was very pale — she had been struck once or twice with his look of sudden exhaustion, which passed as quickly as it came — then she saw that he carried a telegram, and her mind flew back to its central anxiety. She grew pale herself as she read the message.

“He has been found — at Corrientes. It will take him at least a month to get here.”

“A month — good God!”

“And it may take Mr. Langhope longer.” Their eyes met. “It’s too long ——?” she asked.

“I don’t know — I don’t know.” He shivered slightly, turning away into the window.

Justine sat down to dash off messages to Mr. Tredegar and the Gaineses: Amherst’s return must be made known at once. When she glanced up, Wyant was standing near her. His air of intense weariness had passed, and he looked calm and ready for action.

“Shall I take these down?”

“No. Ring, please. I want to ask you a few questions.”

The servant who answered the bell brought in a tea-tray, and Justine, having despatched the telegrams, seated herself and began to pour out her tea. Food had been repugnant to her during the first anguished unsettled days, but with the resumption of the nurse’s systematic habits the nurse’s punctual appetite returned. Every drop of energy must be husbanded now, and only sleep and nourishment could fill the empty cisterns.

She held out a cup to Wyant, but he drew back with a gesture of aversion.

“Thanks; I’m not hungry.”

“You ought to eat more.”

“No, no. I’m very well.”

She lifted her head, revived by the warm draught. The mechanical act of nourishment performed, her mind leapt back to the prospect of Amherst’s return. A whole month before he reached Lynbrook! He had instructed her where news might find him on the way . . . but a whole month to wait!

She looked at Wyant, and they read each other’s thoughts.

“It’s a long time,” he said.

“Yes.”

“But Garford can do wonders — and she’s very strong.”

Justine shuddered. Just so a skilled agent of the Inquisition might have spoken, calculating how much longer the power of suffering might be artificially preserved in a body broken on the wheel. . . .

“How does she seem to you today?”

“The general conditions are about the same. The heart keeps up wonderfully, but there is a little more oppression of the diaphragm.”

“Yes — her breathing is harder. Last night she suffered horribly at times.”

“Oh — she’ll suffer,” Wyant murmured. “Of course the hypodermics can be increased.”

“Just what did Dr. Garford say this morning?”

“He is astonished at her strength.”

“But there’s no hope? — I don’t know why I ask!”

“Hope?” Wyant looked at her. “You mean of what’s called recovery — of deferring death indefinitely?”

She nodded.

“How can Garford tell — or any one? We all know there have been cases where such injury to the cord has not caused death. This may be one of those cases; but the biggest man couldn’t say now.”

Justine hid her eyes. “What a fate!”

“Recovery? Yes. Keeping people alive in such cases is one of the refinements of cruelty that it was left for Christianity to invent.”

“And yet —?”

“And yet — it’s got to be! Science herself says so — not for the patient, of course; but for herself — for unborn generations, rather. Queer, isn’t it? The two creeds are at one.”

Justine murmured through her clasped hands: “I wish she were not so strong —— ”

“Yes; it’s wonderful what those frail petted bodies can stand. The fight is going to be a hard one.”

She rose with a shiver. “I must go to Cicely —— ” The rector of Saint Anne’s had called again. Justine, in obedience to Mrs. Gaines’s suggestion, had summoned him from Clifton the day after the accident; but, supported by the surgeons and Wyant, she had resisted his admission to the sick-room. Bessy’s religious practices had been purely mechanical: her faith had never been associated with the graver moments of her life, and the apparition of a clerical figure at her bedside would portend not consolation but calamity. Since it was all-important that her nervous strength should be sustained, and the gravity of the situation kept from her, Mrs. Gaines yielded to the medical commands, consoled by the ready acquiescence of the rector. But before she left she extracted a promise that he would call frequently at Lynbrook, and wait his opportunity to say an uplifting word to Mrs. Amherst.

The Reverend Ernest Lynde, who was a young man, with more zeal than experience, deemed it his duty to obey this injunction to the letter; but hitherto he had had to content himself with a talk with the housekeeper, or a brief word on the doorstep from Wyant. Today, however, he had asked somewhat insistently for Miss Brent; and Justine, who was free at the moment, felt that she could not refuse to go down. She had seen him only in the pulpit, when once or twice, in Bessy’s absence, she had taken Cicely to church: he struck her as a grave young man, with a fine voice but halting speech. His sermons were earnest but ineffective.

As he rose to meet her, she felt that she should like him better out of church. His glance was clear and honest, and there was sweetness in his hesitating smile.

“I am sorry to seem persistent — but I heard you had news of Mr. Langhope, and I was anxious to know the particulars,” he explained.

Justine replied that her message had overtaken Mr. Langhope at Wady Haifa, and that he hoped to reach Alexandria in time to catch a steamer to Brindisi at the end of the week.

“Not till then? So it will be almost three weeks —?”

“As nearly as I can calculate, a month.”

The rector hesitated. “And Mr. Amherst?”

“He is coming back too.”

“Ah, you have heard? I’m glad of that. He will be here soon?”

“No. He is in South America — at Buenos Ayres. There will be no steamer for some days, and he may not get here till after Mr. Langhope.”

Mr. Lynde looked at her kindly, with grave eyes that proffered help. “This is terrible for you, Miss Brent.”

“Yes,” Justine answered simply.

“And Mrs. Amherst’s condition ——?”

“It is about the same.”

“The doctors are hopeful?”

“They have not lost hope.”

“She seems to keep her strength wonderfully.”

“Yes, wonderfully.”

Mr. Lynde paused, looking downward, and awkwardly turning his soft clerical hat in his large kind-looking hands. “One might almost see in it a dispensation — we should see one, Miss Brent.”

We?” She glanced up apologetically, not quite sure that her tired mind had followed his meaning.

“We, I mean, who believe . . . that not one sparrow falls to the ground. . . . ” He flushed, and went on in a more mundane tone: “I am glad you have the hope of Mr. Langhope’s arrival to keep you up. Modern science — thank heaven! — can do such wonders in sustaining and prolonging life that, even if there is little chance of recovery, the faint spark may be nursed until. . . . ”

He paused again, conscious that the dusky-browed young woman, slenderly erect in her dark blue linen and nurse’s cap, was examining him with an intentness which contrasted curiously with the absent-minded glance she had dropped on him in entering.

“In such cases,” she said in a low tone, “there is practically no chance of recovery.”

“So I understand.”

“Even if there were, it would probably be death-in-life: complete paralysis of the lower body.”

He shuddered. “A dreadful fate! She was so gay and active —— ”

“Yes — and the struggle with death, for the next few weeks, must involve incessant suffering . . . frightful suffering . . . perhaps vainly. . . . ”

“I feared so,” he murmured, his kind face paling.

“Then why do you thank heaven that modern science has found such wonderful ways of prolonging life?”

He raised his head with a start and their eyes met. He saw that the nurse’s face was pale and calm — almost judicial in its composure — and his self-possession returned to him.

“As a Christian,” he answered, with his slow smile, “I can hardly do otherwise.”

Justine continued to consider him thoughtfully. “The men of the older generation — clergymen, I mean,” she went on in a low controlled voice, “would of course take that view — must take it. But the conditions are so changed — so many undreamed-of means of prolonging life — prolonging suffering — have been discovered and applied in the last few years, that I wondered . . . in my profession one often wonders. . . . ”

“I understand,” he rejoined sympathetically, forgetting his youth and his inexperience in the simple desire to bring solace to a troubled mind. “I understand your feeling — but you need have no doubt. Human life is sacred, and the fact that, even in this materialistic age, science is continually struggling to preserve and prolong it, shows — very beautifully, I think — how all things work together to fulfill the divine will.”

“Then you believe that the divine will delights in mere pain — mere meaningless animal suffering — for its own sake?”

“Surely not; but for the sake of the spiritual life that may be mysteriously wrung out of it.”

Justine bent her puzzled brows on him. “I could understand that view of moral suffering — or even of physical pain moderate enough to leave the mind clear, and to call forth qualities of endurance and renunciation. But where the body has been crushed to a pulp, and the mind is no more than a machine for the registering of sense-impressions of physical anguish, of what use can such suffering be to its owner — or to the divine will?”

The young rector looked at her sadly, almost severely. “There, Miss Brent, we touch on inscrutable things, and human reason must leave the answer to faith.”

Justine pondered. “So that — one may say — Christianity recognizes no exceptions —?”

“None — none,” its authorized exponent pronounced emphatically.

“Then Christianity and science are agreed.” She rose, and the young rector, with visible reluctance, stood up also.

“That, again, is one of the most striking evidences — ” he began; and then, as the necessity of taking leave was forced upon him, he added appealingly: “I understand your uncertainties, your questionings, and I wish I could have made my point clearer —— ”

“Thank you; it is quite clear. The reasons, of course, are different; but the result is exactly the same.”

She held out her hand, smiling sadly on him, and with a sudden return of youth and self-consciousness, he murmured shyly: “I feel for you” — the man in him yearning over her loneliness, though the pastor dared not press his help. . . .

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