Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXXIII

OVER the tea-table Justine forgot the note in her muff; but when she went upstairs to dress it fell to the floor, and she picked it up and laid it on her dressing-table.

She had already recognized the hand as Wyant’s, for it was not the first letter she had received from him.

Three times since her marriage he had appealed to her for help, excusing himself on the plea of difficulties and ill-health. The first time he wrote, he alluded vaguely to having married, and to being compelled, through illness, to give up his practice at Clifton. On receiving this letter she made enquiries, and learned that, a month or two after her departure from Lynbrook, Wyant had married a Clifton girl — a pretty piece of flaunting innocence, whom she remembered about the lanes, generally with a young man in a buggy. There had evidently been something obscure and precipitate about the marriage, which was a strange one for the ambitious young doctor. Justine conjectured that it might have been the cause of his leaving Clifton — or or perhaps he had already succumbed to the fatal habit she had suspected in him. At any rate he seemed, in some mysterious way, to have dropped in two years from promise to failure; yet she could not believe that, with his talents, and the name he had begun to make, such a lapse could be more than temporary. She had often heard Dr. Garford prophesy great things for him; but Dr. Garford had died suddenly during the previous summer, and the loss of this powerful friend was mentioned by Wyant among his misfortunes.

Justine was anxious to help him, but her marriage to a rich man had not given her the command of much money. She and Amherst, choosing to regard themselves as pensioners on the Westmore fortune, were scrupulous in restricting their personal expenditure; and her work among the mill-hands brought many demands on the modest allowance which her husband had insisted on her accepting. In reply to Wyant’s first appeal, which reached her soon after her marriage, she had sent him a hundred dollars; but when the second came, some two months later — with a fresh tale of ill-luck and ill-health — she had not been able to muster more than half the amount. Finally a third letter had arrived, a short time before their leaving for New York. It told the same story of persistent misfortune, but on this occasion Wyant, instead of making a direct appeal for money, suggested that, through her hospital connections, she should help him to establish a New York practice. His tone was half-whining, half-peremptory, his once precise writing smeared and illegible; and these indications, combined with her former suspicions, convinced her that, for the moment, he was unfit for medical work. At any rate, she could not assume the responsibility of recommending him; and in answering she advised him to apply to some of the physicians he had worked with at Lynbrook, softening her refusal by the enclosure of a small sum of money. To this letter she received no answer. Wyant doubtless found the money insufficient, and resented her unwillingness to help him by the use of her influence; and she felt sure that the note before her contained a renewal of his former request.

An obscure reluctance made her begin to undress before opening it. She felt slightly tired and indolently happy, and she did not wish any jarring impression to break in on the sense of completeness which her husband’s coming always put into her life. Her happiness was making her timid and luxurious: she was beginning to shrink from even trivial annoyances.

But when at length, in her dressing-gown, her loosened hair about her shoulders, she seated herself before the toilet-mirror, Wyant’s note once more confronted her. It was absurd to put off reading it — if he asked for money again, she would simply confide the whole business to Amherst.

She had never spoken to her husband of her correspondence with Wyant. The mere fact that the latter had appealed to her, instead of addressing himself to Amherst, made her suspect that he had a weakness to hide, and counted on her professional discretion. But his continued importunities would certainly release her from any such supposed obligation; and she thought with relief of casting the weight of her difficulty on her husband’s shoulders.

She opened the note and read.

“I did not acknowledge your last letter because I was ashamed to tell you that the money was not enough to be of any use. But I am past shame now. My wife was confined three weeks ago, and has been desperately ill ever since. She is in no state to move, but we shall be put out of these rooms unless I can get money or work at once. A word from you would have given me a start in New York — and I’d be willing to begin again as an interne or a doctor’s assistant.

“I have never reminded you of what you owe me, and I should not do so now if I hadn’t been to hell and back since I saw you. But I suppose you would rather have me remind you than apply to Mr. Amherst. You can tell me when to call for my answer.”

Justine laid down the letter and looked up. Her eyes rested on her own reflection in the glass, and it frightened her. She sat motionless, with a thickly-beating heart, one hand clenched on the letter.

“I suppose you would rather have me remind you than apply to Mr. Amherst.“

That was what his importunity meant, then! She had been paying blackmail all this time. . . . Somewhere, from the first, in an obscure fold of consciousness, she had felt the stir of an unnamed, unacknowledged fear; and now the fear raised its head and looked at her. Well! She would look back at it, then: look it straight in the malignant eye. What was it, after all, but a “bugbear to scare children” — the ghost of the opinion of the many? She had suspected from the first that Wyant knew of her having shortened the term of Bessy Amherst’s sufferings — returning to the room when he did, it was almost impossible that he should not have guessed what had happened; and his silence had made her believe that he understood her motive and approved it. But, supposing she had been mistaken, she still had nothing to fear, since she had done nothing that her own conscience condemned. If the act were to do again she would do it — she had never known a moment’s regret!

Suddenly she heard Amherst’s step in the passage — heard him laughing and talking as he chased Cicely up the stairs to the nursery.

If she was not afraid, why had she never told Amherst?

Why, the answer to that was simple enough! She had not told him because she was not afraid. From the first she had retained sufficient detachment to view her act impartially, to find it completely justified by circumstances, and to decide that, since those circumstances could be but partly and indirectly known to her husband, she not only had the right to keep her own counsel, but was actually under a kind of obligation not to force on him the knowledge of a fact that he could not alter and could not completely judge. . . . Was there any flaw in this line of reasoning? Did it not show a deliberate weighing of conditions, a perfect rectitude of intention? And, after all, she had had Amherst’s virtual consent to her act! She knew his feelings on such matters — his independence of traditional judgments, his horror of inflicting needless pain — she was as sure of his intellectual assent as of her own. She was even sure that, when she told him, he would appreciate her reasons for not telling him before. . . .

For now of course he must know everything — this horrible letter made it inevitable. She regretted that she had decided, though for the best of reasons, not to speak to him of her own accord; for it was intolerable that he should think of any external pressure as having brought her to avowal. But no! he would not think that. The understanding between them was so complete that no deceptive array of circumstances could ever make her motives obscure to him. She let herself rest a moment in the thought. . . .

Presently she heard him moving in the next room — he had come back to dress for dinner. She would go to him now, at once — she could not bear this weight on her mind the whole evening. She pushed back her chair, crumpling the letter in her hand; but as she did so, her eyes again fell on her reflection. She could not go to her husband with such a face! If she was not afraid, why did she look like that?

Well — she was afraid! It would be easier and simpler to admit it. She was afraid — afraid for the first time — afraid for her own happiness! She had had just eight months of happiness — it was horrible to think of losing it so soon. . . . Losing it? But why should she lose it? The letter must have affected her brain . . . all her thoughts were in a blur of fear. . . . Fear of what? Of the man who understood her as no one else understood her? The man to whose wisdom and mercy she trusted as the believer trusts in God? This was a kind of abominable nightmare — even Amherst’s image had been distorted in her mind! The only way to clear her brain, to recover the normal sense of things, was to go to him now, at once, to feel his arms about her, to let his kiss dispel her fears. . . . She rose with a long breath of relief.

She had to cross the length of the room to reach his door, and when she had gone half-way she heard him knock.

“May I come in?”

She was close to the fire-place, and a bright fire burned on the hearth.

“Come in!” she answered; and as she did so, she turned and dropped Wyant’s letter into the fire. Her hand had crushed it into a little ball, and she saw the flames spring up and swallow it before her husband entered.

It was not that she had changed her mind — she still meant to tell him everything. But to hold the letter was like holding a venomous snake — she wanted to exterminate it, to forget that she had ever seen the blotted repulsive characters. And she could not bear to have Amherst’s eyes rest on it, to have him know that any man had dared to write to her in that tone. What vile meanings might not be read between Wyant’s phrases? She had a right to tell the story in her own way — the true way. . . .

As Amherst approached, in his evening clothes, the heavy locks smoothed from his forehead, a flower of Cicely’s giving in his button-hole, she thought she had never seen him look so kind and handsome.

“Not dressed? Do you know that it’s ten minutes to eight?” he said, coming up to her with a smile.

She roused herself, putting her hands to her hair. “Yes, I know — I forgot,” she murmured, longing to feel his arms about her, but standing rooted to the ground, unable to move an inch nearer.

It was he who came close, drawing her lifted hands into his. “You look worried — I hope it was nothing troublesome that made you forget?”

The divine kindness in his voice, his eyes! Yes — it would be easy, quite easy, to tell him. . . .

“No — yes — I was a little troubled. . . . ” she said, feeling the warmth of his touch flow through her hands reassuringly.

“Dear! What about?”

She drew a deep breath. “The letter —— ”

He looked puzzled. “What letter?”

“Downstairs . . . when we came in . . . it was not an ordinary begging-letter.”

“No? What then?” he asked, his face clouding.

She noticed the change, and it frightened her. Was he angry? Was he going to be angry? But how absurd! He was only distressed at her distress.

“What then?” he repeated, more gently.

She looked up into his eyes for an instant. “It was a horrible letter —— ” she whispered, as she pressed her clasped hands against him.

His grasp tightened on her wrists, and again the stern look crossed his face. “Horrible? What do you mean?”

She had never seen him angry — but she felt suddenly that, to the guilty creature, his anger would be terrible. He would crush Wyant — she must be careful how she spoke.

“I didn’t mean that — only painful. . . . ”

“Where is the letter? Let me see it.”

“Oh, no” she exclaimed, shrinking away.

“Justine, what has happened? What ails you?”

On a blind impulse she had backed toward the hearth, propping her arms against the mantel-piece while she stole a secret glance at the embers. Nothing remained of it — no, nothing.

But suppose it was against herself that his anger turned? The idea was preposterous, yet she trembled at it. It was clear that she must say something at once — must somehow account for her agitation. But the sense that she was unnerved — no longer in control of her face, her voice — made her feel that she would tell her story badly if she told it now. . . . Had she not the right to gain a respite, to choose her own hour? Weakness — weakness again! Every delay would only increase the phantom terror. Now, now — with her head on his breast!

She turned toward him and began to speak impulsively.

“I can’t show you the letter, because it’s not — not my secret —— ”

“Ah?” he murmured, perceptibly relieved.

“It’s from some one — unlucky — whom I’ve known about. . . . ”

“And whose troubles have been troubling you? But can’t we help?”

She shone on him through gleaming lashes. “Some one poor and ill — who needs money, I mean —— ” She tried to laugh away her tears. “And I haven’t any! That’s my trouble!”

“Foolish child! And to beg you are ashamed? And so you’re letting your tears cool Mr. Langhope’s soup?” He had her in his arms now, his kisses drying her cheek; and she turned her head so that their lips met in a long pressure.

“Will a hundred dollars do?” he asked with a smile as he released her.

A hundred dollars! No — she was almost sure they would not. But she tried to shape a murmur of gratitude. “Thank you — thank you! I hated to ask. . . . ”

“I’ll write the cheque at once.”

“No — no,” she protested, “there’s no hurry.”

But he went back to his room, and she turned again to the toilet-table. Her face was painful to look at still — but a light was breaking through its fear. She felt the touch of a narcotic in her veins. How calm and peaceful the room was — and how delicious to think that her life would go on in it, safely and peacefully, in the old familiar way!

As she swept up her hair, passing the comb through it, and flinging it dexterously over her lifted wrist, she heard Amherst cross the floor behind her, and pause to lay something on her writing-table.

“Thank you,” she murmured again, lowering her head as he passed.

When the door had closed on him she thrust the last pin into her hair, dashed some drops of Cologne on her face, and went over to the writing-table. As she picked up the cheque she saw it was for three hundred dollars.

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