Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXIX

FOUR more days had passed. Bessy seldom spoke when Justine was with her. She was wrapped in a thickening cloud of opiates — morphia by day, bromides, sulphonal, chloral hydrate at night. When the cloud broke and consciousness emerged, it was centred in the one acute point of bodily anguish. Darting throes of neuralgia, agonized oppression of the breath, the diffused misery of the whole helpless body — these were reducing their victim to a mere instrument on which pain played its incessant deadly variations. Once or twice she turned her dull eyes on Justine, breathing out: “I want to die,” as some inevitable lifting or readjusting thrilled her body with fresh pangs; but there were no signs of contact with the outer world — she had ceased even to ask for Cicely. . . .

And yet, according to the doctors, the patient held her own. Certain alarming symptoms had diminished, and while others persisted, the strength to fight them persisted too. With such strength to call on, what fresh agonies were reserved for the poor body when the narcotics had lost their power?

That was the question always before Justine. She never again betrayed her fears to Wyant — she carried out his orders with morbid precision, trembling lest any failure in efficiency should revive his suspicions. She hardly knew what she feared his suspecting — she only had a confused sense that they were enemies, and that she was the weaker of the two.

And then the anæsthetics began to fail. It was the sixteenth day since the accident, and the resources of alleviation were almost exhausted. It was not sure, even now, that Bessy was going to die — and she was certainly going to suffer a long time. Wyant seemed hardly conscious of the increase of pain — his whole mind was fixed on the prognosis. What matter if the patient suffered, as long as he proved his case? That, of course, was not his way of putting it. In reality, he did all he could to allay the pain, surpassed himself in new devices and experiments. But death confronted him implacably, claiming his due: so many hours robbed from him, so much tribute to pay; and Wyant, setting his teeth, fought on — and Bessy paid.

Justine had begun to notice that it was hard for her to get a word alone with Dr. Garford. The other nurses were not in the way — it was Wyant who always contrived to be there. Perhaps she was unreasonable in seeing a special intention in his presence: it was natural enough that the two persons in charge of the case should confer together with their chief. But his persistence annoyed her, and she was glad when, one afternoon, the surgeon asked him to telephone an important message to town.

As soon as the door had closed, Justine said to Dr. Garford: “She is beginning to suffer terribly.”

He answered with the large impersonal gesture of the man to whom physical suffering has become a painful general fact of life, no longer divisible into individual cases. “We are doing all we can.”

“Yes.” She paused, and then raised her eyes to his dry kind face. “Is there any hope?”

Another gesture — the fatalistic sweep of the lifted palms. “The next ten days will tell — the fight is on, as Wyant says. And if any one can do it, that young fellow can. There’s stuff in him — and infernal ambition.”

“Yes: but do you believe she can live —?”

Dr. Garford smiled indulgently on such unprofessional insistence; but she was past wondering what they must all think of her.

“My dear Miss Brent,” he said, “I have reached the age when one always leaves a door open to the unexpected.”

As he spoke, a slight sound at her back made her turn. Wyant was behind her — he must have entered as she put her question. And he certainly could not have had time to descend the stairs, walk the length of the house, ring up New York, and deliver Dr Garford’s message. . . . The same thought seemed to strike the surgeon. “Hello, Wyant?” he said.

“Line busy,” said Wyant curtly.

About this time, Justine gave up her night vigils. She could no longer face the struggle of the dawn hour, when life ebbs lowest; and since her duties extended beyond the sick-room she could fairly plead that she was more needed about the house by day. But Wyant protested: he wanted her most at the difficult hour.

“You know you’re taking a chance from her,” he said, almost sternly.

“Oh, no —— ”

He looked at her searchingly. “You don’t feel up to it?”

“No.”

He turned away with a slight shrug; but she knew he resented her defection.

The day watches were miserable enough. It was the nineteenth day now; and Justine lay on the sofa in Amherst’s sitting-room, trying to nerve herself for the nurse’s summons. A page torn out of the calendar lay before her — she had been calculating again how many days must elapse before Mr. Langhope could arrive. Ten days — ten days and ten nights! And the length of the nights was double. . . . As for Amherst, it was impossible to set a date for his coming, for his steamer from Buenos Ayres called at various ports on the way northward, and the length of her stay at each was dependent on the delivery of freight, and on the dilatoriness of the South American official.

She threw down the calendar and leaned back, pressing her hands to her temples. Oh, for a word with Amherst — he alone would have understood what she was undergoing! Mr. Langhope’s coming would make no difference — or rather, it would only increase the difficulty of the situation. Instinctively Justine felt that, though his heart would be wrung by the sight of Bessy’s pain, his cry would be the familiar one, the traditional one: Keep her alive! Under his surface originality, his verbal audacities and ironies, Mr. Langhope was the creature of accepted forms, inherited opinions: he had never really thought for himself on any of the pressing problems of life.

But Amherst was different. Close contact with many forms of wretchedness had freed him from the bondage of accepted opinion. He looked at life through no eyes but his own; and what he saw, he confessed to seeing. He never tried to evade the consequences of his discoveries.

Justine’s remembrance flew back to their first meeting at Hanaford, when his confidence in his own powers was still unshaken, his trust in others unimpaired. And, gradually, she began to relive each detail of their talk at Dillon’s bedside — her first impression of him, as he walked down the ward; the first sound of his voice; her surprised sense of his authority; her almost involuntary submission to his will. . . . Then her thoughts passed on to their walk home from the hospital — she recalled his sober yet unsparing summary of the situation at Westmore, and the note of insight with which he touched on the hardships of the workers. . . . Then, word by word, their talk about Dillon came back . . . Amherst’s indignation and pity . . . his shudder of revolt at the man’s doom.

In your work, don’t you ever feel tempted to set a poor devil free?” And then, after her conventional murmur of protest: “To save what, when all the good of life is gone?

To distract her thoughts she stretched her hand toward the book-case, taking out the first volume in reach — the little copy of Bacon. She leaned back, fluttering its pages aimlessly — so wrapped in her own misery that the meaning of the words could not reach her. It was useless to try to read: every perception of the outer world was lost in the hum of inner activity that made her mind like a forge throbbing with heat and noise. But suddenly her glance fell on some pencilled sentences on the fly-leaf. They were in Amherst’s hand, and the sight arrested her as though she had heard him speak.

La vraie morale se moque de la morale. . . .

We perish because we follow other men’s examples. . . .

Socrates used to call the opinions of the many by the name of Lamiæ — bugbears to frighten children. . . .

A rush of air seemed to have been let into her stifled mind. Were they his own thoughts? No — her memory recalled some confused association with great names. But at least they must represent his beliefs — must embody deeply-felt convictions — or he would scarcely have taken the trouble to record them.

She murmured over the last sentence once or twice: The opinions of the many — bugbears to frighten children. . . . Yes, she had often heard him speak of current judgments in that way . . . she had never known a mind so free from the spell of the Lamiæ.

Some one knocked, and she put aside the book and rose to her feet. It was a maid bringing a note from Wyant.

“There has been a motor accident beyond Clifton, and I have been sent for. I think I can safely be away for two or three hours, but ring me up at Clifton if you want me. Miss Mace has instructions, and Garford’s assistant will be down at seven.”

She looked at the clock: it was just three, the hour at which she was to relieve Miss Mace. She smoothed the hair from her forehead, straightened her cap, tied on the apron she had laid aside. . . .

As she entered Bessy’s sitting-room the nurse came out, memoranda in hand. The two moved to the window for a moment’s conference, and as the wintry light fell on Miss Mace’s face, Justine saw that it was white with fatigue.

“You’re ill!” she exclaimed.

The nurse shook her head. “No — but it’s awful . . . this afternoon. . . . ” Her glance turned to the sick-room.

“Go and rest — I’ll stay till bedtime,” Justine said.

“Miss Safford’s down with another headache.”

“I know: it doesn’t matter. I’m quite fresh.”

“You do look rested!” the other exclaimed, her eyes lingering enviously on Justine’s face.

She stole away, and Justine entered the room. It was true that she felt fresh — a new spring of hope had welled up in her. She had her nerves in hand again, she had regained her steady vision of life. . . .

But in the room, as the nurse had said, it was awful. The time had come when the effect of the anæsthetics must be carefully husbanded, when long intervals of pain must purchase the diminishing moments of relief. Yet from Wyant’s standpoint it was a good day — things were looking well, as he would have phrased it. And each day now was a fresh victory.

Justine went through her task mechanically. The glow of strength and courage remained, steeling her to bear what had broken down Miss Mace’s professional fortitude. But when she sat down by the bed Bessy’s moaning began to wear on her. It was no longer the utterance of human pain, but the monotonous whimper of an animal — the kind of sound that a compassionate hand would instinctively crush into silence. But her hand had other duties; she must keep watch on pulse and heart, must reinforce their action with the tremendous stimulants which Wyant was now using, and, having revived fresh sensibility to pain, must presently try to allay it by the cautious use of narcotics.

It was all simple enough — but suppose she should not do it? Suppose she left the stimulants untouched? Wyant was absent, one nurse exhausted with fatigue, the other laid low by headache. Justine had the field to herself. For three hours at least no one was likely to cross the threshold of the sick-room. . . . Ah, if no more time were needed! But there was too much life in Bessy — her youth was fighting too hard for her! She would not sink out of life in three hours . . . and Justine could not count on more than that.

She looked at the little travelling-clock on the dressing-table, and saw that its hands marked four. An hour had passed already. . . . She rose and administered the prescribed restorative; then she took the pulse, and listened to the beat of the heart. Strong still — too strong!

As she lifted her head, the vague animal wailing ceased, and she heard her name: “Justine —— ”

She bent down eagerly. “Yes?”

No answer: the wailing had begun again. But the one word showed her that the mind still lived in its torture-house, that the poor powerless body before her was not yet a mere bundle of senseless reflexes, but her friend Bessy Amherst, dying, and feeling herself die. . . .

Justine reseated herself, and the vigil began again. The second hour ebbed slowly — ah, no, it was flying now! Her eyes were on the hands of the clock and they seemed leagued against her to devour the precious minutes. And now she could see by certain spasmodic symptoms that another crisis of pain was approaching — one of the struggles that Wyant, at times, had almost seemed to court and exult in.

Bessy’s eyes turned on her again. “Justine —— ”

She knew what that meant: it was an appeal for the hypodermic needle. The little instrument lay at hand, beside a newly-filled bottle of morphia. But she must wait — must let the pain grow more severe. Yet she could not turn her gaze from Bessy, and Bessy’s eyes entreated her again — Justine! There was really no word now — the whimperings were uninterrupted. But Justine heard an inner voice, and its pleading shook her heart. She rose and filled the syringe — and returning with it, bent above the bed. . . .

She lifted her head and looked at the clock. The second hour had passed. As she looked, she heard a step in the sitting-room. Who could it be? Not Dr. Garford’s assistant — he was not due till seven. She listened again. . . . One of the nurses? No, not a woman’s step ——

The door opened, and Wyant came in. Justine stood by the bed without moving toward him. He paused also, as if surprised to see her there motionless. In the intense silence she fancied for a moment that she heard Bessy’s violent agonized breathing. She tried to speak, to drown the sound of the breathing; but her lips trembled too much, and she remained silent.

Wyant seemed to hear nothing. He stood so still that she felt she must move forward. As she did so, she picked up from the table by the bed the memoranda that it was her duty to submit to him.

“Well?” he said, in the familiar sick-room whisper.

“She is dead.”

He fell back a step, glaring at her, white and incredulous.

Dead? — When ——?”

“A few minutes ago. . . . ”

Dead —? It’s not possible!”

He swept past her, shouldering her aside, pushing in an electric button as he sprang to the bed. She perceived then that the room had been almost in darkness. She recovered command of herself, and followed him. He was going through the usual rapid examination — pulse, heart, breath — hanging over the bed like some angry animal balked of its prey. Then he lifted the lids and bent close above the eyes.

“Take the shade off that lamp!” he commanded.

Justine obeyed him.

He stooped down again to examine the eyes . . . he remained stooping a long time. Suddenly he stood up and faced her.

“Had she been in great pain?”

“Yes.”

“Worse than usual?”

“Yes.”

“What had you done?”

“Nothing — there was no time.”

“No time?” He broke off to sweep the room again with his excited incredulous glance. “Where are the others? Why were you here alone?” he demanded.

“It came suddenly. I was going to call —— ”

Their eyes met for a moment. Her face was perfectly calm — she could feel that her lips no longer trembled. She was not in the least afraid of Wyant’s scrutiny.

As he continued to look at her, his expression slowly passed from incredulous wrath to something softer — more human — she could not tell what. . . .

“This has been too much for you — go and send one of the others. . . . It’s all over,” he said.

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