Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXXV

AMHERST, his back to the threshold, sat at a table writing: Wyant stood a few feet away, staring down at the fire.

Neither had heard the door open; and before they were aware of her entrance Justine had calculated that she must have been away for at least five minutes, and that in that space of time almost anything might have passed between them.

For a moment the power of connected thought left her; then her heart gave a bound of relief. She said to herself that Wyant had doubtless made some allusion to his situation, and that her husband, conscious only of a great debt of gratitude, had at once sat down to draw a cheque for him. The idea was so reassuring that it restored all her clearness of thought.

Wyant was the first to see her. He made an abrupt movement, and Amherst, rising, turned and put an envelope in his hand.

“There, my dear fellow —— ”

As he turned he caught sight of his wife.

“I caught the twelve o’clock train after all — you got my second wire?” he asked.

“No,” she faltered, pressing her left hand, with the little case in it, close to the folds of her dress.

“I was afraid not. There was a bad storm at Hanaford, and they said there might be a delay.”

At the same moment she found Wyant advancing with extended hand, and understood that he had concealed the fact of having already seen her. She accepted the cue, and shook his hand, murmuring: “How do you do?”

Amherst looked at her, perhaps struck by her manner.

“You have not seen Dr. Wyant since Lynbrook?”

“No,” she answered, thankful to have this pretext for her emotion.

“I have been telling him that he should not have left us so long without news — especially as he has been ill, and things have gone rather badly with him. But I hope we can help now. He has heard that Saint Christopher’s is looking for a house-physician for the paying patients’ wing, and as Mr. Langhope is away I have given him a line to Mrs. Ansell.”

“Extremely kind of you,” Wyant murmured, passing his hand over his forehead.

Justine stood silent. She wondered that her husband had not noticed that tremulous degraded hand. But he was always so blind to externals — and he had no medical experience to sharpen his perceptions.

Suddenly she felt impelled to speak “I am sorry Dr. Wyant has been — unfortunate. Of course you will want to do everything to help him; but would it not be better to wait till Mr. Langhope comes back?”

“Wyant thinks the delay might make him lose the place. It seems the board meets tomorrow. And Mrs. Ansell really knows much more about it. Isn’t she the secretary of the ladies’ committee?”

“I’m not sure — I believe so. But surely Mr. Langhope should be consulted.”

She felt Wyant’s face change: his eyes settled on her in a threatening stare.

Amherst looked at her also, and there was surprise in his glance. “I think I can answer for my father-in-law. He feels as strongly as I do how much we all owe to Dr. Wyant.”

He seldom spoke of Mr. Langhope as his father-in-law, and the chance designation seemed to mark a closer tie between them, to exclude Justine from what was after all a family affair. For a moment she felt tempted to accept the suggestion, and let the responsibility fall where it would. But it would fall on Amherst — and that was intolerable.

“I think you ought to wait,” she insisted.

An embarrassed silence settled on the three.

Wyant broke it by advancing toward Amherst. “I shall never forget your kindness,” he said; “and I hope to prove to Mrs. Amherst that it’s not misplaced.”

The words were well chosen, and well spoken; Justine saw that they produced a good effect. Amherst grasped the physician’s hand with a smile. “My dear fellow, I wish I could do more. Be sure to call on me again if you want help.”

“Oh, you’ve put me on my feet,” said Wyant gratefully.

He bowed slightly to Justine and turned to go; but as he reached the threshold she moved after him.

“Dr. Wyant — you must give back that letter.”

He stopped short with a whitening face.

She felt Amherst’s eyes on her again; and she said desperately, addressing him: “Dr. Wyant understands my reasons.”

Her husband’s glance turned abruptly to Wyant. “Do you?” he asked after a pause.

Wyant looked from one to the other. The moisture came out on his forehead, and he passed his hand over it again. “Yes,” he said in a dry voice. “Mrs. Amherst wants me farther off — out of New York.”

“Out of New York? What do you mean?”

Justine interposed hastily, before the answer could come. “It is because Dr. Wyant is not in condition — for such a place — just at present.”

“But he assures me he is quite well.”

There was another silence; and again Wyant broke in, this time with a slight laugh. “I can explain what Mrs. Amherst means; she intends to accuse me of the morphine habit. And I can explain her reason for doing so — she wants me out of the way.”

Amherst turned on the speaker; and, as she had foreseen, his look was terrible. “You haven’t explained that yet,” he said.

“Well — I can.” Wyant waited another moment. “I know too much about her,” he declared.

There was a low exclamation from Justine, and Amherst strode toward Wyant. “You infernal blackguard!” he cried.

“Oh, gently —— ” Wyant muttered, flinching back from his outstretched arm.

“My wife’s wish is sufficient. Give me back that letter.”

Wyant straightened himself. “No, by God, I won’t!” he retorted furiously. “I didn’t ask you for it till you offered to help me; but I won’t let it be taken back without a word, like a thief that you’d caught with your umbrella. If your wife won’t explain I will. She’s, afraid I’ll talk about what happened at Lynbrook.”

Amherst’s arm fell to his side. “At Lynbrook?”

Behind him there was a sound of inarticulate appeal — but he took no notice.

“Yes. It’s she who used morphia — but not on herself. She gives it to other people. She gave an overdose to Mrs. Amherst.”

Amherst looked at him confusedly. “An overdose?”

“Yes — purposely, I mean. And I came into the room at the wrong time. I can prove that Mrs. Amherst died of morphia-poisoning.”

“John!” Justine gasped out, pressing between them.

Amherst gently put aside the hand with which she had caught his arm. “Wait a moment: this can’t rest here. You can’t want it to,” he said to her in an undertone.

“Why do you care . . . for what he says . . . when I don’t?” she breathed back with trembling lips.

“You can see I am not wanted here,” Wyant threw in with a sneer.

Amherst remained silent for a brief space; then he turned his eyes once more to his wife.

Justine lifted her face: it looked small and spent, like an extinguished taper.

“It’s true,” she said.

“True?”

“I did give . . . an overdose . . . intentionally, when I knew there was no hope, and when the surgeons said she might go on suffering. She was very strong . . . and I couldn’t bear it . . . you couldn’t have borne it. . . . ”

There was another silence; then she went on in a stronger voice, looking straight at her husband: “And now will you send this man away?”

Amherst glanced at Wyant without moving. “Go,” he said curtly.

Wyant, instead, moved a step nearer. “Just a minute, please. It’s only fair to hear my side. Your wife says there was no hope; yet the day before she . . . gave the dose, Dr. Garford told her in my presence that Mrs. Amherst might live.”

Again Amherst’s eyes addressed themselves slowly to Justine; and she forced her lips to articulate an answer.

“Dr. Garford said . . . one could never tell . . . but I know he didn’t believe in the chance of recovery . . . no one did.”

“Dr. Garford is dead,” said Wyant grimly.

Amherst strode up to him again. “You scoundrel — leave the house!” he commanded.

But still Wyant sneeringly stood his ground. “Not till I’ve finished. I can’t afford to let myself be kicked out like a dog because I happen to be in the way. Every doctor knows that in cases of spinal lesion recovery is becoming more and more frequent — if the patient survives the third week there’s every reason to hope. Those are the facts as they would appear to any surgeon. If they’re not true, why is Mrs. Amherst afraid of having them stated? Why has she been paying me for nearly a year to keep them quiet?”

“Oh —— ” Justine moaned.

“I never thought of talking till luck went against me. Then I asked her for help — and reminded her of certain things. After that she kept me supplied pretty regularly.” He thrust his shaking hand into an inner pocket. “Here are her envelopes . . . Quebec . . . Montreal . . . Saranac . . . I know just where you went on your honeymoon. She had to write often, because the sums were small. Why did she do it, if she wasn’t afraid? And why did she go upstairs just now to fetch me something? If you don’t believe me, ask her what she’s got in her hand.”

Amherst did not heed this injunction. He stood motionless, gripping the back of a chair, as if his next gesture might be to lift and hurl it at the speaker.

“Ask her —— ” Wyant repeated.

Amherst turned his head slowly, and his dull gaze rested on his wife. His face looked years older — lips and eyes moved as heavily as an old man’s.

As he looked at her, Justine came forward without speaking, and laid the little morocco case in his hand. He held it there a moment, as if hardly understanding her action — then he tossed it on the table at his elbow, and walked up to Wyant.

“You hound,” he said — “now go!”

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