Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXXIV

ONCE or twice, in the days that followed, Justine found herself thinking that she had never known happiness before. The old state of secure well-being seemed now like a dreamless sleep; but this new bliss, on its sharp pinnacle ringed with fire — this thrilling conscious joy, daily and hourly snatched from fear — this was living, not sleeping!

Wyant acknowledged her gift with profuse, almost servile thanks. She had sent it without a word — saying to herself that pity for his situation made it possible to ignore his baseness. And the days went on as before. She was not conscious of any change, save in the heightened, almost artificial quality of her happiness, till one day in March, when Mr. Langhope announced that he was going for two or three weeks to a friend’s shooting-box in the south. The anniversary of Bessy’s death was approaching, and Justine knew that at that time he always absented himself.

“Supposing you and Amherst were to carry off Cicely till I come back? Perhaps you could persuade him to break away from work for once — or, if that’s impossible, you could take her with you to Hanaford. She looks a little pale, and the change would be good for her.”

This was a great concession on Mr. Langhope’s part, and Justine saw the pleasure in her husband’s face. It was the first time that his father-in-law had suggested Cicely’s going to Hanaford.

“I’m afraid I can’t break away just now, sir,” Amherst said, “but it will be delightful for Justine if you’ll give us Cicely while you’re away.”

“Take her by all means, my dear fellow: I always sleep on both ears when she’s with your wife.”

It was nearly three months since Justine had left Hanaford — and now she was to return there alone with her husband! There would be hours, of course, when the child’s presence was between them — or when, again, his work would keep him at the mills. But in the evenings, when Cicely was in bed — when he and she sat alone, together in the Westmore drawing-room — in Bessy’s drawing-room! . . . No — she must find some excuse for remaining away till she had again grown used to the idea of being alone with Amherst. Every day she was growing a little more used to it; but it would take time — time, and the full assurance that Wyant was silenced. Till then she could not go back to Hanaford.

She found a pretext in her own health. She pleaded that she was a little tired, below par . . . and to return to Hanaford meant returning to hard work; with the best will in the world she could not be idle there. Might she not, she suggested, take Cicely to Tuxedo or Lakewood, and thus get quite away from household cares and good works? The pretext rang hollow — it was so unlike her! She saw Amherst’s eyes rest anxiously on her as Mr. Langhope uttered his prompt assent. Certainly she did look tired — Mr. Langhope himself had noticed it. Had he perhaps over-taxed her energies, left the household too entirely on her shoulders? Oh, no — it was only the New York air . . . like Cicely, she pined for a breath of the woods. . . . And so, the day Mr. Langhope left, she and Cicely were packed off to Lakewood.

They stayed there a week: then a fit of restlessness drove Justine back to town. She found an excuse in the constant rain — it was really useless, as she wrote Mr. Langhope, to keep the child imprisoned in an over-heated hotel while they could get no benefit from the outdoor life. In reality, she found the long lonely hours unendurable. She pined for a sight of her husband, and thought of committing Cicely to Mrs. Ansell’s care, and making a sudden dash for Hanaford. But the vision of the long evenings in the Westmore drawing-room again restrained her. No — she would simply go back to New York, dine out occasionally, go to a concert or two, trust to the usual demands of town life to crowd her hours with small activities. . . . And in another week Mr. Langhope would be back and the days would resume their normal course.

On arriving, she looked feverishly through the letters in the hall. None from Wyant — that fear was allayed! Every day added to her reassurance. By this time, no doubt, he was on his feet again, and ashamed — unutterably ashamed — of the threat that despair had wrung from him. She felt almost sure that his shame would keep him from ever attempting to see her, or even from writing again.

“A gentleman called to see you yesterday, madam — he would give no name,” the parlour-maid said. And there was the sick fear back on her again! She could hardly control the trembling of her lips as she asked: “Did he leave no message?”

“No, madam: he only wanted to know when you’d be back.”

She longed to return: “And did you tell him?” but restrained herself, and passed into the drawing-room. After all, the parlour-maid had not described the caller — why jump to the conclusion that it was Wyant?

Three days passed, and no letter came — no sign. She struggled with the temptation to describe Wyant to the servants, and to forbid his admission. But it would not do. They were nearly all old servants, in whose eyes she was still the intruder, the upstart sick-nurse — she could not wholly trust them. And each day she felt a little easier, a little more convinced that the unknown visitor had not been Wyant.

On the fourth day she received a letter from Amherst. He hoped to be back on the morrow, but as his plans were still uncertain he would telegraph in the morning — and meanwhile she must keep well, and rest, and amuse herself. . . .

Amuse herself! That evening, as it happened, she was going to the theatre with Mrs. Ansell. She and Mrs. Ansell, though outwardly on perfect terms, had not greatly advanced in intimacy. The agitated, decentralized life of the older woman seemed futile and trivial to Justine; but on Mr. Langhope’s account she wished to keep up an appearance of friendship with his friend, and the same motive doubtless inspired Mrs. Ansell. Just now, at any rate, Justine was grateful for her attentions, and glad to go about with her. Anything — anything to get away from her own thoughts! That was the pass she had come to.

At the theatre, in a proscenium box, the publicity, the light and movement, the action of the play, all helped to distract and quiet her. At such moments she grew ashamed of her fears. Why was she tormenting herself? If anything happened she had only to ask her husband for more money. She never spoke to him of her good works, and there would be nothing to excite suspicion in her asking help again for the friend whose secret she was pledged to keep. . . . But nothing was going to happen. As the play progressed, and the stimulus of talk and laughter flowed through her veins, she felt a complete return of confidence. And then suddenly she glanced across the house, and saw Wyant looking at her.

He sat rather far back, in one of the side rows just beneath the balcony, so that his face was partly shaded. But even in the shadow it frightened her. She had been prepared for a change, but not for this ghastly deterioration. And he continued to look at her.

She began to be afraid that he would do something conspicuous — point at her, or stand up in his seat. She thought he looked half-mad — or was it her own hallucination that made him appear so? She and Mrs. Ansell were alone in the box for the moment, and she started up, pushing back her chair. . . .

Mrs. Ansell leaned forward. “What is it?”

“Nothing — the heat — I’ll sit back for a moment.” But as she withdrew into the back of the box, she was seized by a new fear. If he was still watching, might he not come to the door and try to speak to her? Her only safety lay in remaining in full view of the audience; and she returned to Mrs. Ansell’s side.

The other members of the party came back — the bell rang, the foot-lights blazed, the curtain rose. She lost herself in the mazes of the play. She sat so motionless, her face so intently turned toward the stage, that the muscles at the back of her neck began to stiffen. And then, quite suddenly, toward the middle of the act, she felt an undefinable sense of relief. She could not tell what caused it — but slowly, cautiously, while the eyes of the others were intent upon the stage, she turned her head and looked toward Wyant’s seat. It was empty.

Her first thought was that he had gone to wait for her outside. But no — there were two more acts: why should he stand at the door for half the evening?

At last the act ended; the entr’acte elapsed; the play went on again — and still the seat was empty. Gradually she persuaded herself that she had been mistaken in thinking that the man who had occupied it was Wyant. Her self-command returned, she began to think and talk naturally, to follow the dialogue on the stage — and when the evening was over, and Mrs. Ansell set her down at her door, she had almost forgotten her fears.

The next morning she felt calmer than for many days. She was sure now that if Wyant had wished to speak to her he would have waited at the door of the theatre; and the recollection of his miserable face made apprehension yield to pity. She began to feel that she had treated him coldly, uncharitably. They had been friends once, as well as fellow-workers; but she had been false even to the comradeship of the hospital. She should have sought him out and given him sympathy as well as money; had she shown some sign of human kindness his last letter might never have been written.

In the course of the morning Amherst telegraphed that he hoped to settle his business in time to catch the two o’clock express, but that his plans were still uncertain. Justine and Cicely lunched alone, and after luncheon the little girl was despatched to her dancing-class. Justine herself meant to go out when the brougham returned. She went up to her room to dress, planning to drive in the park, and to drop in on Mrs. Ansell before she called for Cicely; but on the way downstairs she saw the servant opening the door to a visitor. It was too late to draw back; and descending the last steps she found herself face to face with Wyant.

They looked at each other a moment in silence; then Justine murmured a word of greeting and led the way to the drawing-room.

It was a snowy afternoon, and in the raw ash-coloured light she thought he looked more changed than at the theatre. She remarked, too, that his clothes were worn and untidy, his gloveless hands soiled and tremulous. None of the degrading signs of his infirmity were lacking; and she saw at once that, while in the early days of the habit he had probably mixed his drugs, so that the conflicting symptoms neutralized each other, he had now sunk into open morphia-taking. She felt profoundly sorry for him; yet as he followed her into the room physical repulsion again mastered the sense of pity.

But where action was possible she was always self-controlled, and she turned to him quietly as they seated themselves.

“I have been wishing to see you,” she said, looking at him. “I have felt that I ought to have done so sooner — to have told you how sorry I am for your bad luck.”

He returned her glance with surprise: they were evidently the last words he had expected.

“You’re very kind,” he said in a low embarrassed voice. He had kept on his shabby over-coat, and he twirled his hat in his hands as he spoke.

“I have felt,” Justine continued, “that perhaps a talk with you might be of more use —— ”

He raised his head, fixing her with bright narrowed eyes. “I have felt so too: that’s my reason for coming. You sent me a generous present some weeks ago — but I don’t want to go on living on charity.”

“I understand that,” she answered. “But why have you had to do so? Won’t you tell me just what has happened?”

She felt the words to be almost a mockery; yet she could not say “I read your history at a glance”; and she hoped that her question might draw out his wretched secret, and thus give her the chance to speak frankly.

He gave a nervous laugh. “Just what has happened? It’s a long story — and some of the details are not particularly pretty.” He broke off, moving his hat more rapidly through his trembling hands.

“Never mind: tell me.”

“Well — after you all left Lynbrook I had rather a bad break-down — the strain of Mrs. Amherst’s case, I suppose. You remember Bramble, the Clifton grocer? Miss Bramble nursed me — I daresay you remember her too. When I recovered I married her — and after that things didn’t go well.”

He paused, breathing quickly, and looking about the room with odd, furtive glances. “I was only half-well, anyhow — I couldn’t attend to my patients properly — and after a few months we decided to leave Clifton, and I bought a practice in New Jersey. But my wife was ill there, and things went wrong again — damnably. I suppose you’ve guessed that my marriage was a mistake. She had an idea that we should do better in New York — so we came here a few months ago, and we’ve done decidedly worse.”

Justine listened with a sense of discouragement. She saw now that he did not mean to acknowledge his failing, and knowing the secretiveness of the drug-taker she decided that he was deluded enough to think he could still deceive her.

“Well,” he began again, with an attempt at jauntiness, “I’ve found out that in my profession it’s a hard struggle to get on your feet again, after illness or — or any bad set-back. That’s the reason I asked you to say a word for me. It’s not only the money, though I need that badly — I want to get back my self-respect. With my record I oughtn’t to be where I am — and you can speak for me better than any one.”

“Why better than the doctors you’ve worked with?” Justine put the question abruptly, looking him straight in the eyes.

His glance dropped, and an unpleasant flush rose to his thin cheeks.

“Well — as it happens, you’re better situated than any one to help me to the particular thing I want.”

“The particular thing ——?”

“Yes. I understand that Mr. Langhope and Mrs. Ansell are both interested in the new wing for paying patients at Saint Christopher’s. I want the position of house-physician there, and I know you can get it for me.”

His tone changed as he spoke, till with the last words it became rough and almost menacing.

Justine felt her colour rise, and her heart began to beat confusedly. Here was the truth, then: she could no longer be the dupe of her own compassion. The man knew his power and meant to use it. But at the thought her courage was in arms.

“I’m sorry — but it’s impossible,” she said.

“Impossible — why?”

She continued to look at him steadily. “You said just now that you wished to regain your self-respect. Well, you must regain it before you can ask me — or any one else — to recommend you to a position of trust.”

Wyant half-rose, with an angry murmur. “My self-respect? What do you mean? I meant that I’d lost courage — through ill-luck —— ”

“Yes; and your ill-luck has come through your own fault. Till you cure yourself you’re not fit to cure others.”

He sank back into his seat, glowering at her under sullen brows; then his expression gradually changed to half-sneering admiration. “You’re a plucky one!” he said.

Justine repressed a movement of disgust. “I am very sorry for you,” she said gravely. “I saw this trouble coming on you long ago — and if there is any other way in which I can help you —— ”

“Thanks,” he returned, still sneering. “Your sympathy is very precious — there was a time when I would have given my soul for it. But that’s over, and I’m here to talk business. You say you saw my trouble coming on — did it ever occur to you that you were the cause of it?”

Justine glanced at him with frank contempt. “No — for I was not,” she replied.

“That’s an easy way out of it. But you took everything from me — first my hope of marrying you; then my chance of a big success in my career; and I was desperate — weak, if you like — and tried to deaden my feelings in order to keep up my pluck.”

Justine rose to her feet with a movement of impatience. “Every word you say proves how unfit you are to assume any responsibility — to do anything but try to recover your health. If I can help you to that, I am still willing to do so.”

Wyant rose also, moving a step nearer. “Well, get me that place, then — I’ll see to the rest: I’ll keep straight.”

“No — it’s impossible.”

“You won’t?”

“I can’t,” she repeated firmly.

“And you expect to put me off with that answer?”

She hesitated. “Yes — if there’s no other help you’ll accept.”

He laughed again — his feeble sneering laugh was disgusting. “Oh, I don’t say that. I’d like to earn my living honestly — funny preference — but if you cut me off from that, I suppose it’s only fair to let you make up for it. My wife and child have got to live.”

“You choose a strange way of helping them; but I will do what I can if you will go for a while to some institution —— ”

He broke in furiously. “Institution be damned! You can’t shuffle me out of the way like that. I’m all right — good food is what I need. You think I’ve got morphia in me — why, it’s hunger!”

Justine heard him with a renewal of pity. “Oh, I’m sorry for you — very sorry! Why do you try to deceive me?”

“Why do you deceive me? You know what I want and you know you’ve got to let me have it. If you won’t give me a line to one of your friends at Saint Christopher’s you’ll have to give me another cheque — that’s the size of it.”

As they faced each other in silence Justine’s pity gave way to a sudden hatred for the poor creature who stood shivering and sneering before her.

“You choose the wrong tone — and I think our talk has lasted long enough,” she said, stretching her hand to the bell.

Wyant did not move. “Don’t ring — unless you want me to write to your husband,” he rejoined.

A sick feeling of helplessness overcame her; but she turned on him firmly. “I pardoned you once for that threat!”

“Yes — and you sent me some money the next day.”

“I was mistaken enough to think that, in your distress, you had not realized what you wrote. But if you’re a systematic blackmailer —— ”

“Gently — gently. Bad names don’t frighten me — it’s hunger and debt I’m afraid of.”

Justine felt a last tremor of compassion. He was abominable — but he was pitiable too.

“I will really help you — I will see your wife and do what I can — but I can give you no money today.”

“Why not?”

“Because I have none. I am not as rich as you think.”

He smiled incredulously. “Give me a line to Mr. Langhope, then.”

“No.”

He sat down once more, leaning back with a weak assumption of ease. “Perhaps Mr. Amherst will think differently.”

She whitened, but said steadily: “Mr. Amherst is away.”

“Very well — I can write.”

For the last five minutes Justine had foreseen this threat, and had tried to force her mind to face dispassionately the chances it involved. After all, why not let him write to Amherst? The very vileness of the deed must rouse an indignation which would be all in her favour, would inevitably dispose her husband to readier sympathy with the motive of her act, as contrasted with the base insinuations of her slanderer. It seemed impossible that Amherst should condemn her when his condemnation involved the fulfilling of Wyant’s calculations: a reaction of scorn would throw him into unhesitating championship of her conduct. All this was so clear that, had she been advising any one else, her confidence in the course to be taken might have strengthened the feeblest will; but with the question lying between herself and Amherst — with the vision of those soiled hands literally laid on the spotless fabric of her happiness, judgment wavered, foresight was obscured — she felt tremulously unable to face the steps between exposure and vindication. Her final conclusion was that she must, at any rate, gain time: buy off Wyant till she had been able to tell her story in her own way, and at her own hour, and then defy him when he returned to the assault. The idea that whatever concession she made would be only provisional, helped to excuse the weakness of making it, and enabled her at last, without too painful a sense of falling below her own standards, to reply in a low voice: “If you’ll go now, I will send you something next week.”

But Wyant did not respond as readily as she had expected. He merely asked, without altering his insolently easy attitude: “How much? Unless it’s a good deal, I prefer the letter.”

Oh, why could she not cry out: “Leave the house at once — your vulgar threats are nothing to me” — Why could she not even say in her own heart: I will tell my husband tonight?

“You’re afraid,” said Wyant, as if answering her thought. “What’s the use of being afraid when you can make yourself comfortable so easily? You called me a systematic blackmailer — well, I’m not that yet. Give me a thousand and you’ll see the last of me — on what used to be my honour.”

Justine’s heart sank. She had reached the point of being ready to appeal again to Amherst — but on what pretext could she ask for such a sum?

In a lifeless voice she said: “I could not possibly get more than one or two hundred.”

Wyant scrutinized her a moment: her despair must have rung true to him. “Well, you must have something of your own — I saw your jewelry last night at the theatre,” he said.

So it had been he — and he had sat there appraising her value like a murderer!

“Jewelry —?” she faltered.

“You had a thumping big sapphire — wasn’t it? — with diamonds round it.”

It was her only jewel — Amherst’s marriage gift. She would have preferred a less valuable present, but his mother had persuaded her to accept it, saying that it was the bride’s duty to adorn herself for the bridegroom.

“I will give you nothing — ” she was about to exclaim; when suddenly her eyes fell on the clock. If Amherst had caught the two o’clock express he would be at the house within the hour; and the only thing that seemed of consequence now, was that he should not meet Wyant. Supposing she still found courage to refuse — there was no knowing how long the humiliating scene might be prolonged: and she must be rid of the creature at any cost. After all, she seldom wore the sapphire — months might pass without its absence being noted by Amherst’s careless eye; and if Wyant should pawn it, she might somehow save money to buy it back before it was missed. She went through these calculations with feverish rapidity; then she turned again to Wyant.

“You won’t come back — ever?”

“I swear I won’t,” he said.

He moved away toward the window, as if to spare her; and she turned and slowly left the room.

She never forgot the moments that followed. Once outside the door she was in such haste that she stumbled on the stairs, and had to pause on the landing to regain her breath. In her room she found one of the housemaids busy, and at first could think of no pretext for dismissing her. Then she bade the woman go down and send the brougham away, telling the coachman to call for Miss Cicely at six.

Left alone, she bolted the door, and as if with a thief’s hand, opened her wardrobe, unlocked her jewel-box, and drew out the sapphire in its flat morocco case. She restored the box to its place, the key to its ring — then she opened the case and looked at the sapphire. As she did so, a little tremor ran over her neck and throat, and closing her eyes she felt her husband’s kiss, and the touch of his hands as he fastened on the jewel.

She unbolted the door, listened intently on the landing, and then went slowly down the stairs. None of the servants were in sight, yet as she reached the lower hall she was conscious that the air had grown suddenly colder, as though the outer door had just been opened. She paused, and listened again. There was a sound of talking in the drawing-room. Could it be that in her absence a visitor had been admitted? The possibility frightened her at first — then she welcomed it as an unexpected means of ridding herself of her tormentor.

She opened the drawing-room door, and saw her husband talking with Wyant.

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