Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXVIII

THAT evening, when Justine took her place at the bedside, and the other two nurses had gone down to supper, Bessy turned her head slightly, resting her eyes on her friend.

The rose-shaded lamp cast a tint of life on her face, and the dark circles of pain made her eyes look deeper and brighter. Justine was almost deceived by the delusive semblance of vitality, and a hope that was half anguish stirred in her. She sat down by the bed, clasping the hand on the sheet.

“You feel better tonight?”

“I breathe . . . better. . . . ” The words came brokenly, between long pauses, but without the hard agonized gasps of the previous night.

“That’s a good sign.” Justine paused, and then, letting her fingers glide once or twice over the back of Bessy’s hand — “You know, dear, Mr. Amherst is coming,” she leaned down to say.

Bessy’s eyes moved again, slowly, inscrutably. She had never asked for her husband.

“Soon?” she whispered.

“He had started on a long journey — to out-of-the-way places — to study something about cotton growing — my message has just overtaken him,” Justine explained.

Bessy lay still, her breast straining for breath. She remained so long without speaking that Justine began to think she was falling back into the somnolent state that intervened between her moments of complete consciousness. But at length she lifted her lids again, and her lips stirred.

“He will be . . . long . . . coming?”

“Some days.”

“How . . . many?”

“We can’t tell yet.”

Silence again. Bessy’s features seemed to shrink into a kind of waxen quietude — as though her face were seen under clear water, a long way down. And then, as she lay thus, without sound or movement, two tears forced themselves through her lashes and rolled down her cheeks.

Justine, bending close, wiped them away. “Bessy — ”

The wet lashes were raised — an anguished look met her gaze.

“I— I can’t bear it. . . . ”

“What, dear?”

“The pain. . . . Shan’t I die . . . before?”

“You may get well, Bessy.”

Justine felt her hand quiver. “Walk again . . .?”

“Perhaps . . . not that.”

This? I can’t bear it. . . . ” Her head drooped sideways, turning away toward the wall.

Justine, that night, kept her vigil with an aching heart. The news of Amherst’s return had produced no sign of happiness in his wife —— the tears had been forced from her merely by the dread of being kept alive during the long days of pain before he came. The medical explanation might have been that repeated crises of intense physical anguish, and the deep lassitude succeeding them, had so overlaid all other feelings, or at least so benumbed their expression, that it was impossible to conjecture how Bessy’s little half-smothered spark of soul had really been affected by the news. But Justine did not believe in this argument. Her experience among the sick had convinced her, on the contrary, that the shafts of grief or joy will find a crack in the heaviest armour of physical pain, that the tiniest gleam of hope will light up depths of mental inanition, and somehow send a ray to the surface. . . . It was true that Bessy had never known how to bear pain, and that her own sensations had always formed the centre of her universe — yet, for that very reason, if the thought of seeing Amherst had made her happier it would have lifted, at least momentarily, the weight of death from her body.

Justine, at first, had almost feared the contrary effect — feared that the moral depression might show itself in a lowering of physical resistance. But the body kept up its obstinate struggle against death, drawing strength from sources of vitality unsuspected in that frail envelope. The surgeon’s report the next day was more favourable, and every day won from death pointed now to a faint chance of recovery.

Such at least was Wyant’s view. Dr. Garford and the consulting surgeons had not yet declared themselves; but the young doctor, strung to the highest point of watchfulness, and constantly in attendance on the patient, was tending toward a hopeful prognosis. The growing conviction spurred him to fresh efforts; at Dr. Garford’s request, he had temporarily handed over his Clifton practice to a young New York doctor in need of change, and having installed himself at Lynbrook he gave up his days and nights to Mrs. Amherst’s case.

“If any one can save her, Wyant will,” Dr. Garford had declared to Justine, when, on the tenth day after the accident, the surgeons held their third consultation. Dr. Garford reserved his own judgment. He had seen cases — they had all seen cases . . . but just at present the signs might point either way. . . . Meanwhile Wyant’s confidence was an invaluable asset toward the patient’s chances of recovery. Hopefulness in the physician was almost as necessary as in the patient — contact with such faith had been known to work miracles.

Justine listened in silence, wishing that she too could hope. But whichever way the prognosis pointed, she felt only a dull despair. She believed no more than Dr. Garford in the chance of recovery — that conviction seemed to her a mirage of Wyant’s imagination, of his boyish ambition to achieve the impossible — and every hopeful symptom pointed, in her mind, only to a longer period of useless suffering.

Her hours at Bessy’s side deepened her revolt against the energy spent in the fight with death. Since Bessy had learned that her husband was returning she had never, by sign or word, reverted to the fact. Except for a gleam of tenderness, now and then, when Cicely was brought to her, she seemed to have sunk back into herself, as though her poor little flicker of consciousness were wholly centred in the contemplation of its pain. It was not that her mind was clouded — only that it was immersed, absorbed, in that dread mystery of disproportionate anguish which a capricious fate had laid on it. . . . And what if she recovered, as they called it? If the flood-tide of pain should ebb, leaving her stranded, a helpless wreck on the desert shores of inactivity? What would life be to Bessy without movement? Thought would never set her blood flowing — motion, in her, could only take the form of the physical processes. Her love for Amherst was dead — even if it flickered into life again, it could but put the spark to smouldering discords and resentments; and would her one uncontaminated sentiment — her affection for Cicely — suffice to reconcile her to the desolate half-life which was the utmost that science could hold out?

Here again, Justine’s experience answered no. She did not believe in Bessy’s powers of moral recuperation — her body seemed less near death than her spirit. Life had been poured out to her in generous measure, and she had spilled the precious draught — the few drops remaining in the cup could no longer renew her strength.

Pity, not condemnation — profound illimitable pity — flowed from this conclusion of Justine’s. To a compassionate heart there could be no sadder instance of the wastefulness of life than this struggle of the small half-formed soul with a destiny too heavy for its strength. If Bessy had had any moral hope to fight for, every pang of suffering would have been worth enduring; but it was intolerable to witness the spectacle of her useless pain.

Incessant commerce with such thoughts made Justine, as the days passed, crave any escape from solitude, any contact with other ideas. Even the reappearance of Westy Gaines, bringing a breath of common-place conventional grief into the haunted silence of the house, was a respite from her questionings. If it was hard to talk to him, to answer his enquiries, to assent to his platitudes, it was harder, a thousand times, to go on talking to herself. . . .

Mr. Tredegar’s coming was a distinct relief. His dryness was like cautery to her wound. Mr. Tredegar undoubtedly grieved for Bessy; but his grief struck inward, exuding only now and then, through the fissures of his hard manner, in a touch of extra solemnity, the more laboured rounding of a period. Yet, on the whole, it was to his feeling that Justine felt her own to be most akin. If his stoic acceptance of the inevitable proceeded from the resolve to spare himself pain, that at least was a form of strength, an indication of character. She had never cared for the fluencies of invertebrate sentiment.

Now, on the evening of the day after her talk with Bessy, it was more than ever a solace to escape from the torment of her thoughts into the rarefied air of Mr. Tredegar’s presence. The day had been a bad one for the patient, and Justine’s distress had been increased by the receipt of a cable from Mr. Langhope, announcing that, owing to delay in reaching Brindisi, he had missed the fast steamer from Cherbourg, and would not arrive till four or five days later than he had expected. Mr. Tredegar, in response to her report, had announced his intention of coming down by a late train, and now he and Justine and Dr. Wyant, after dining together, were seated before the fire in the smoking-room.

“I take it, then,” Mr. Tredegar said, turning to Wyant, “that the chances of her living to see her father are very slight.”

The young doctor raised his head eagerly. “Not in my opinion, sir. Unless unforeseen complications arise, I can almost promise to keep her alive for another month — I’m not afraid to call it six weeks!”

“H’m — Garford doesn’t say so.”

“No; Dr. Garford argues from precedent.”

“And you?” Mr. Tredegar’s thin lips were visited by the ghost of a smile.

“Oh, I don’t argue — I just feel my way,” said Wyant imperturbably.

“And yet you don’t hesitate to predict —— ”

“No, I don’t, sir; because the case, as I see it, presents certain definite indications.” He began to enumerate them, cleverly avoiding the use of technicalities and trying to make his point clear by the use of simple illustration and analogy. It sickened Justine to listen to his passionate exposition — she had heard it so often, she believed in it so little.

Mr. Tredegar turned a probing glance on him as he ended. “Then, today even, you believe not only in the possibility of prolonging life, but of ultimate recovery?”

Wyant hesitated. “I won’t call it recovery — today. Say — life indefinitely prolonged.”

“And the paralysis?”

“It might disappear — after a few months — or a few years.”

“Such an outcome would be unusual?”

“Exceptional. But then there are exceptions. And I’m straining every nerve to make this one!”

“And the suffering — such as today’s, for instance — is unavoidable?”

“Unhappily.”

“And bound to increase?”

“Well — as the anæsthetics lose their effect. . . . ”

There was a tap on the door, and one of the nurses entered to report to Wyant. He went out with her, and Justine was left with Mr. Tredegar.

He turned to her thoughtfully. “That young fellow seems sure of himself. You believe in him?”

Justine hesitated. “Not in his expectation of recovery — no one does.”

“But you think they can keep the poor child alive till Langhope and her husband get back?”

There was a moment’s pause; then Justine murmured: “It can be done . . . I think. . . . ”

“Yes — it’s horrible,” said Mr. Tredegar suddenly, as if in answer to her thought.

She looked up in surprise, and saw his eye resting on her with what seemed like a mist of sympathy on its vitreous surface. Her lips trembled, parting as if for speech — but she looked away without answering.

“These new devices for keeping people alive,” Mr. Tredegar continued; “they increase the suffering besides prolonging it?”

“Yes — in some cases.”

“In this case?”

“I am afraid so.”

The lawyer drew out his fine cambric handkerchief, and furtively wiped a slight dampness from his forehead. “I wish to God she had been killed!” he said.

Justine lifted her head again, with an answering exclamation. “Oh, yes!”

“It’s infernal — the time they can make it last.”

“It’s useless!” Justine broke out.

“Useless?” He turned his critical glance on her. “Well, that’s beside the point — since it’s inevitable.”

She wavered a moment — but his words had loosened the bonds about her heart, and she could not check herself so suddenly. “Why inevitable?”

Mr. Tredegar looked at her in surprise, as though wondering at so unprofessional an utterance from one who, under ordinary circumstances, showed the absolute self-control and submission of the well-disciplined nurse.

“Human life is sacred,” he said sententiously.

“Ah, that must have been decreed by some one who had never suffered!” Justine exclaimed.

Mr. Tredegar smiled compassionately: he evidently knew how to make allowances for the fact that she was overwrought by the sight of her friend’s suffering: “Society decreed it — not one person,” he corrected.

“Society — science — religion!” she murmured, as if to herself.

“Precisely. It’s the universal consensus — the result of the world’s accumulated experience. Cruel in individual instances — necessary for the general welfare. Of course your training has taught you all this; but I can understand that at such a time. . . . ”

“Yes,” she said, rising wearily as Wyant came in.

Her worst misery, now, was to have to discuss Bessy’s condition with Wyant. To the young physician Bessy was no longer a suffering, agonizing creature: she was a case — a beautiful case. As the problem developed new intricacies, becoming more and more of a challenge to his faculties of observation and inference, Justine saw the abstract scientific passion supersede his personal feeling of pity. Though his professional skill made him exquisitely tender to the patient under his hands, he seemed hardly conscious that she was a woman who had befriended him, and whom he had so lately seen in the brightness of health and enjoyment. This view was normal enough — it was, as Justine knew, the ideal state of mind for the successful physician, in whom sympathy for the patient as an individual must often impede swift choice and unfaltering action. But what she shrank from was his resolve to save Bessy’s life — a resolve fortified to the point of exasperation by the scepticism of the consulting surgeons, who saw in it only the youngster’s natural desire to distinguish himself by performing a feat which his elders deemed impossible.

As the days dragged on, and Bessy’s sufferings increased, Justine longed for a protesting word from Dr. Garford or one of his colleagues. In her hospital experience she had encountered cases where the useless agonies of death were mercifully shortened by the physician; why was not this a case for such treatment? The answer was simple enough — in the first place, it was the duty of the surgeons to keep their patient alive till her husband and her father could reach her; and secondly, there was that faint illusive hope of so-called recovery, in which none of them believed, yet which they could not ignore in their treatment. The evening after Mr. Tredegar’s departure Wyant was setting this forth at great length to Justine. Bessy had had a bad morning: the bronchial symptoms which had developed a day or two before had greatly increased her distress, and there had been, at dawn, a moment of weakness when it seemed that some pitiful power was about to defeat the relentless efforts of science. But Wyant had fought off the peril. By the prompt and audacious use of stimulants — by a rapid marshalling of resources, a display of self-reliance and authority, which Justine could not but admire as she mechanically seconded his efforts — the spark of life had been revived, and Bessy won back for fresh suffering.

“Yes — I say it can be done: tonight I say it more than ever,” Wyant exclaimed, pushing the disordered hair from his forehead, and leaning toward Justine across the table on which their brief evening meal had been served. “I say the way the heart has rallied proves that we’ve got more strength to draw on than any of them have been willing to admit. The breathing’s better too. If we can fight off the degenerative processes — and, by George, I believe we can!” He looked up suddenly at Justine. “With you to work with, I believe I could do anything. How you do back a man up! You think with your hands — with every individual finger!”

Justine turned her eyes away: she felt a shudder of repulsion steal over her tired body. It was not that she detected any note of personal admiration in his praise — he had commended her as the surgeon might commend a fine instrument fashioned for his use. But that she should be the instrument to serve such a purpose — that her skill, her promptness, her gift of divining and interpreting the will she worked with, should be at the service of this implacable scientific passion! Ah, no — she could be silent no longer. . . .

She looked up at Wyant, and their eyes met.

“Why do you do it?” she asked.

He stared, as if thinking that she referred to some special point in his treatment. “Do what?”

“It’s so useless . . . you all know she must die.”

“I know nothing of the kind . . . and even the others are not so sure today.” He began to go over it all again — repeating his arguments, developing new theories, trying to force into her reluctant mind his own faith in the possibility of success.

Justine sat resting her chin on her clasped hands, her eyes gazing straight before her under dark tormented brows. When he paused she remained silent.

“Well — don’t you believe me?” he broke out with sudden asperity.

“I don’t know . . . I can’t tell. . . . ”

“But as long as there’s a doubt, even — a doubt my way — and I’ll show you there is, if you’ll give me time —— ”

“How much time?” she murmured, without shifting her gaze.

“Ah — that depends on ourselves: on you and me chiefly. That’s what Garford admits. They can’t do much now — they’ve got to leave the game to us. It’s a question of incessant vigilance . . . of utilizing every hour, every moment. . . . Time’s all I ask, and you can give it to me, if any one can!”

Under the challenge of his tone Justine rose to her feet with a low murmur of fear. “Ah, don’t ask me!”

“Don’t ask you ——?”

“I can’t — I can’t.”

Wyant stood up also, turning on her an astonished glance.

“You can’t what —?”

Their eyes met, and she thought she read in his a sudden divination of her inmost thoughts. The discovery electrified her flagging strength, restoring her to immediate clearness of brain. She saw the gulf of self-betrayal over which she had hung, and the nearness of the peril nerved her to a last effort of dissimulation.

“I can’t . . . talk of it . . . any longer,” she faltered, letting her tears flow, and turning on him a face of pure womanly weakness.

Wyant looked at her without answering. Did he distrust even these plain physical evidences of exhaustion, or was he merely disappointed in her, as in one whom he had believed to be above the emotional failings of her sex?

“You’re over-tired,” he said coldly. “Take tonight to rest. Miss Mace can replace you for the next few hours — and I may need you more tomorrow.”

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