Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXXVI

WHEN Wyant had left the room, and the house-door had closed on him, Amherst spoke to his wife.

“Come upstairs,” he said.

Justine followed him, scarcely conscious where she went, but moving already with a lighter tread. Part of her weight of misery had been lifted with Wyant’s going. She had suffered less from the fear of what her husband might think than from the shame of making her avowal in her defamer’s presence. And her faith in Amherst’s comprehension had begun to revive. He had dismissed Wyant with scorn and horror — did not that show that he was on her side already? And how many more arguments she had at her call! Her brain hummed with them as she followed him up the stairs.

In her bedroom he closed the door and stood motionless, the same heavy half-paralyzed look on his face. It frightened her and she went up to him.

“John!” she said timidly.

He put his hand to his head. “Wait a moment —— ” he returned; and she waited, her heart slowly sinking again.

The moment over, he seemed to recover his power of movement. He crossed the room and threw himself into the armchair near the hearth.

“Now tell me everything.”

He sat thrown back, his eyes fixed on the fire, and the vertical lines between his brows forming a deep scar in his white face.

Justine moved nearer, and touched his arm beseechingly. “Won’t you look at me?”

He turned his head slowly, as if with an effort, and his eyes rested reluctantly on hers.

“Oh, not like that!” she exclaimed.

He seemed to make a stronger effort at self-control. “Please don’t heed me — but say what there is to say,” he said in a level voice, his gaze on the fire.

She stood before him, her arms hanging down, her clasped fingers twisting restlessly.

“I don’t know that there is much to say — beyond what I’ve told you.”

There was a slight sound in Amherst’s throat, like the ghost of a derisive laugh. After another interval he said: “I wish to hear exactly what happened.”

She seated herself on the edge of a chair near by, bending forward, with hands interlocked and arms extended on her knees — every line reaching out to him, as though her whole slight body were an arrow winged with pleadings. It was a relief to speak at last, even face to face with the stony image that sat in her husband’s place; and she told her story, detail by detail, omitting nothing, exaggerating nothing, speaking slowly, clearly, with precision, aware that the bare facts were her strongest argument.

Amherst, as he listened, shifted his position once, raising his hand so that it screened his face; and in that attitude he remained when she had ended.

As she waited for him to speak, Justine realized that her heart had been alive with tremulous hopes. All through her narrative she had counted on a murmur of perception, an exclamation of pity: she had felt sure of melting the stony image. But Amherst said no word.

At length he spoke, still without turning his head. “You have not told me why you kept this from me.”

A sob formed in her throat, and she had to wait to steady her voice.

“No — that was my wrong — my weakness. When I did it I never thought of being afraid to tell you — I had talked it over with you in my own mind . . . so often . . . before. . . . ”

“Well?”

“Then —— when you came back it was harder . . . though I was still sure you would approve me.”

“Why harder?”

“Because at first — at Lynbrook — I could not tell it all over, in detail, as I have now . . . it was beyond human power . . . and without doing so, I couldn’t make it all clear to you . . . and so should only have added to your pain. If you had been there you would have done as I did. . . . I felt sure of that from the first. But coming afterward, you couldn’t judge . . . no one who was not there could judge . . . and I wanted to spare you. . . . ”

“And afterward?”

She had shrunk in advance from this question, and she could not answer it at once. To gain time she echoed it. “Afterward?”

“Did it never occur to you, when we met later — when you first went to Mr. Langhope —— "?

“To tell you then? No — because by that time I had come to see that I could never be quite sure of making you understand. No one who was not there at the time could know what it was to see her suffer.”

“You thought it all over, then — decided definitely against telling me?”

“I did not have to think long. I felt I had done right — I still feel so — and I was sure you would feel so, if you were in the same circumstances.”

There was another pause. Then Amherst said: “And last September — at Hanaford?”

It was the word for which she had waited — the word of her inmost fears. She felt the blood mount to her face.

“Did you see no difference — no special reason for telling me then?”

“Yes —— ” she faltered.

“Yet you said nothing.”

“No.”

Silence again. Her eyes strayed to the clock, and some dim association of ideas told her that Cicely would soon be coming in.

“Why did you say nothing?”

He lowered his hand and turned toward her as he spoke; and she looked up and faced him.

“Because I regarded the question as settled. I had decided it in my own mind months before, and had never regretted my decision. I should have thought it morbid . . . unnatural . . . to go over the whole subject again . . . to let it affect a situation that had come about . . . so much later . . . so unexpectedly.”

“Did you never feel that, later, if I came to know — if others came to know — it might be difficult ——?”

“No; for I didn’t care for the others — and I believed that, whatever your own feelings were, you would know I had done what I thought right.”

She spoke the words proudly, strongly, and for the first time the hard lines of his face relaxed, and a slight tremor crossed it.

“If you believed this, why have you been letting that cur blackmail you?”

“Because when he began I saw for the first time that what I had done might be turned against me by — by those who disliked our marriage. And I was afraid for my happiness. That was my weakness . . . it is what I am suffering for now.”

Suffering!” he echoed ironically, as though she had presumed to apply to herself a word of which he had the grim monopoly. He rose and took a few aimless steps; then he halted before her.

“That day — last month — when you asked me for money . . . was it . . .?”

“Yes —— ” she said, her head sinking.

He laughed. “You couldn’t tell me — but you could use my money to bribe that fellow to conspire with you!”

“I had none of my own.”

“No — nor I either! You used her money. — God!” he groaned, turning away with clenched hands.

Justine had risen also, and she stood motionless, her hands clasped against her breast, in the drawn shrinking attitude of a fugitive overtaken by a blinding storm. He moved back to her with an appealing gesture.

“And you didn’t see — it didn’t occur to you — that your doing . . . as you did . . . was an obstacle — an insurmountable obstacle — to our ever . . .?”

She cut him short with an indignant cry. “No! No! for it was not. How could it have anything to do with what . . . came after . . . with you or me? I did it only for Bessy — it concerned only Bessy!”

“Ah, don’t name her!” broke from him harshly, and she drew back, cut to the heart.

There was another pause, during which he seemed to fall into a kind of dazed irresolution, his head on his breast, as though unconscious of her presence. Then he roused himself and went to the door.

As he passed her she sprang after him. “John — John! Is that all you have to say?”

“What more is there?”

“What more? Everything! — What right have you to turn from me as if I were a murderess? I did nothing but what your own reason, your own arguments, have justified a hundred times! I made a mistake in not telling you at once — but a mistake is not a crime. It can’t be your real feeling that turns you from me — it must be the dread of what other people would think! But when have you cared for what other people thought? When have your own actions been governed by it?”

He moved another step without speaking, and she caught him by the arm. “No! you sha’n’t go — not like that! — Wait!”

She turned and crossed the room. On the lower shelf of the little table by her bed a few books were ranged: she stooped and drew one hurriedly forth, opening it at the fly-leaf as she went back to Amherst.

“There — read that. The book was at Lynbrook — in your room — and I came across it by chance the very day. . . . ”

It was the little volume of Bacon which she was thrusting at him. He took it with a bewildered look, as if scarcely following what she said.

“Read it — read it!” she commanded; and mechanically he read out the words he had written.

La vraie morale se moque de la morale. . . . We perish because we follow other men’s examples. . . . Socrates called the opinions of the many Lamiæ. — Good God!” he exclaimed, flinging the book from him with a gesture of abhorrence.

Justine watched him with panting lips, her knees trembling under her. “But you wrote it — you wrote it! I thought you meant it!” she cried, as the book spun across a table and dropped to the floor.

He looked at her coldly, almost apprehensively, as if she had grown suddenly dangerous and remote; then he turned and walked out of the room.

The striking of the clock roused her. She rose to her feet, rang the bell, and told the maid, through the door, that she had a headache, and was unable to see Miss Cicely. Then she turned back into the room, and darkness closed on her. She was not the kind to take grief passively — it drove her in anguished pacings up and down the floor. She walked and walked till her legs flagged under her; then she dropped stupidly into the chair where Amherst had sat. . . .

All her world had crumbled about her. It was as if some law of mental gravity had been mysteriously suspended, and every firmly-anchored conviction, every accepted process of reasoning, spun disconnectedly through space. Amherst had not understood her — worse still, he had judged her as the world might judge her! The core of her misery was there. With terrible clearness she saw the suspicion that had crossed his mind — the suspicion that she had kept silence in the beginning because she loved him, and feared to lose him if she spoke.

And what if it were true? What if her unconscious guilt went back even farther than his thought dared to track it? She could not now recall a time when she had not loved him. Every chance meeting with him, from their first brief talk at Hanaford, stood out embossed and glowing against the blur of lesser memories. Was it possible that she had loved him during Bessy’s life — that she had even, sub-consciously, blindly, been urged by her feeling for him to perform the act?

But she shook herself free from this morbid horror — the rebound of health was always prompt in her, and her mind instinctively rejected every form of moral poison. No! Her motive had been normal, sane and justifiable — completely justifiable. Her fault lay in having dared to rise above conventional restrictions, her mistake in believing that her husband could rise with her. These reflections steadied her but they did not bring much comfort. For her whole life was centred in Amherst, and she saw that he would never be able to free himself from the traditional view of her act. In looking back, and correcting her survey of his character in the revealing light of the last hours, she perceived that, like many men of emancipated thought, he had remained subject to the old conventions of feeling. And he had probably never given much thought to women till he met her — had always been content to deal with them in the accepted currency of sentiment. After all, it was the currency they liked best, and for which they offered their prettiest wares!

But what of the intellectual accord between himself and her? She had not been deceived in that! He and she had really been wedded in mind as well as in heart. But until now there had not arisen in their lives one of those searching questions which call into play emotions rooted far below reason and judgment, in the dark primal depths of inherited feeling. It is easy to judge impersonal problems intellectually, turning on them the full light of acquired knowledge; but too often one must still grope one’s way through the personal difficulty by the dim taper carried in long-dead hands. . . .

But was there then no hope of lifting one’s individual life to a clearer height of conduct? Must one be content to think for the race, and to feel only — feel blindly and incoherently — for one’s self? And was it not from such natures as Amherst’s — natures in which independence of judgment was blent with strong human sympathy — that the liberating impulse should come?

Her mind grew weary of revolving in this vain circle of questions. The fact was that, in their particular case, Amherst had not risen above prejudice and emotion; that, though her act was one to which his intellectual sanction was given, he had turned from her with instinctive repugnance, had dishonoured her by the most wounding suspicions. The tie between them was forever stained and debased.

Justine’s long hospital-discipline made it impossible for her to lose consciousness of the lapse of time, or to let her misery thicken into mental stupor. She could not help thinking and moving; and she presently lifted herself to her feet, turned on the light, and began to prepare for dinner. It would be terrible to face her husband across Mr. Langhope’s pretty dinner-table, and afterward in the charming drawing-room, with its delicate old ornaments and intimate luxurious furniture; but she could not continue to sit motionless in the dark: it was her innermost instinct to pick herself up and go on.

While she dressed she listened anxiously for Amherst’s step in the next room; but there was no sound, and when she dragged herself downstairs the drawing-room was empty, and the parlour-maid, after a decent delay, came to ask if dinner should be postponed.

She said no, murmuring some vague pretext for her husband’s absence, and sitting alone through the succession of courses which composed the brief but carefully-studied menu. When this ordeal was over she returned to the drawing-room and took up a book. It chanced to be a new volume on labour problems, which Amherst must have brought back with him from Westmore; and it carried her thoughts instantly to the mills. Would this disaster poison their work there as well as their personal relation? Would he think of her as carrying contamination even into the task their love had illumined?

The hours went on without his returning, and at length it occurred to her that he might have taken the night train to Hanaford. Her heart contracted at the thought: she remembered — though every nerve shrank from the analogy — his sudden flight at another crisis in his life, and she felt obscurely that if he escaped from her now she would never recover her hold on him. But could he be so cruel — could he wish any one to suffer as she was suffering?

At ten o’clock she could endure the drawing-room no longer, and went up to her room again. She undressed slowly, trying to prolong the process as much as possible, to put off the period of silence and inaction which would close in on her when she lay down on her bed. But at length the dreaded moment came — there was nothing more between her and the night. She crept into bed and put out the light; but as she slipped between the cold sheets a trembling seized her, and after a moment she drew on her dressing-gown again and groped her way to the lounge by the fire.

She pushed the lounge closer to the hearth and lay down, still shivering, though she had drawn the quilted coverlet up to her chin. She lay there a long time, with closed eyes, in a mental darkness torn by sudden flashes of memory. In one of these flashes a phrase of Amherst’s stood out — a word spoken at Westmore, on the day of the opening of the Emergency Hospital, about a good-looking young man who had called to see her. She remembered Amherst’s boyish burst of jealousy, his sudden relief at the thought that the visitor might have been Wyant. And no doubt it was Wyant — Wyant who had come to Hanaford to threaten her, and who, baffled by her non-arrival, or for some other unexplained reason, had left again without carrying out his purpose.

It was dreadful to think by how slight a chance her first draught of happiness had escaped that drop of poison; yet, when she understood, her inward cry was: “If it had happened, my dearest need not have suffered!” . . . Already she was feeling Amherst’s pain more than her own, understanding that it was harder to bear than hers because it was at war with all the reflective part of his nature.

As she lay there, her face pressed into the cushions, she heard a sound through the silent house — the opening and closing of the outer door. She turned cold, and lay listening with strained ears. . . . Yes; now there was a step on the stairs — her husband’s step! She heard him turn into his own room. The throbs of her heart almost deafened her — she only distinguished confusedly that he was moving about within, so close that it was as if she felt his touch. Then her door opened and he entered.

He stumbled slightly in the darkness before he found the switch of the lamp; and as he bent over it she saw that his face was flushed, and that his eyes had an excited light which, in any one less abstemious, might almost have seemed like the effect of wine.

“Are you awake?” he asked.

She started up against the cushions, her black hair streaming about her small ghostly face.

“Yes.”

He walked over to the lounge and dropped into the low chair beside it.

“I’ve given that cur a lesson he won’t forget,” he exclaimed, breathing hard, the redness deepening in his face.

She turned on him in joy and trembling. “John! — Oh, John! You didn’t follow him? Oh, what happened? What have you done?”

“No. I didn’t follow him. But there are some things that even the powers above can’t stand. And so they managed to let me run across him — by the merest accident — and I gave him something to remember.”

He spoke in a strong clear voice that had a brightness like the brightness in his eyes. She felt its heat in her veins — the primitive woman in her glowed at contact with the primitive man. But reflection chilled her the next moment.

“But why — why? Oh, how could you? Where did it happen — oh, not in the street?”

As she questioned him, there rose before her the terrified vision of a crowd gathering — the police, newspapers, a hideous publicity. He must have been mad to do it — and yet he must have done it because he loved her!

“No — no. Don’t be afraid. The powers looked after that too. There was no one about — and I don’t think he’ll talk much about it.”

She trembled, fearing yet adoring him. Nothing could have been more unlike the Amherst she fancied she knew than this act of irrational anger which had magically lifted the darkness from his spirit; yet, magically also, it gave him back to her, made them one flesh once more. And suddenly the pressure of opposed emotions became too strong, and she burst into tears.

She wept painfully, violently, with the resistance of strong natures unused to emotional expression; till at length, through the tumult of her tears, she felt her husband’s reassuring touch.

“Justine,” he said, speaking once more in his natural voice.

She raised her face from her hands, and they looked at each other.

“Justine — this afternoon — I said things I didn’t mean to say.”

Her lips parted, but her throat was still full of sobs, and she could only look at him while the tears ran down.

“I believe I understand now,” he continued, in the same quiet tone.

Her hand shrank from his clasp, and she began to tremble again. “Oh, if you only believe . . . if you’re not sure . . . don’t pretend to be!”

He sat down beside her and drew her into his arms. “I am sure,” he whispered, holding her close, and pressing his lips against her face and hair.

“Oh, my husband — my husband! You’ve come back to me?”

He answered her with more kisses, murmuring through them: “Poor child — poor child — poor Justine. . . . ” while he held her fast.

With her face against him she yielded to the childish luxury of murmuring out unjustified fears. “I was afraid you had gone back to Hanaford —— ”

“Tonight? To Hanaford?”

“To tell your mother.”

She felt a contraction of the arm embracing her, as though a throb of pain had stiffened it.

“I shall never tell any one,” he said abruptly; but as he felt in her a responsive shrinking he gathered her close again, whispering through the hair that fell about her cheek: “Don’t talk, dear . . . let us never talk of it again. . . . ” And in the clasp of his arms her terror and anguish subsided, giving way, not to the deep peace of tranquillized thought, but to a confused well-being that lulled all thought to sleep.

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