Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXXVII

BUT thought could never be long silent between them; and Justine’s triumph lasted but a day.

With its end she saw what it had been made of: the ascendency of youth and sex over his subjugated judgment. Her first impulse was to try and maintain it — why not use the protective arts with which love inspired her? She who lived so keenly in the brain could live as intensely in her feelings; her quick imagination tutored her looks and words, taught her the spells to weave about shorn giants. And for a few days she and Amherst lost themselves in this self-evoked cloud of passion, both clinging fast to the visible, the palpable in their relation, as if conscious already that its finer essence had fled.

Amherst made no allusion to what had passed, asked for no details, offered no reassurances — behaved as if the whole episode had been effaced from his mind. And from Wyant there came no sound: he seemed to have disappeared from life as he had from their talk.

Toward the end of the week Amherst announced that he must return to Hanaford; and Justine at once declared her intention of going with him.

He seemed surprised, disconcerted almost; and for the first time the shadow of what had happened fell visibly between them.

“But ought you to leave Cicely before Mr. Langhope comes back?” he suggested.

“He will be here in two days.”

“But he will expect to find you.”

“It is almost the first of April. We are to have Cicely with us for the summer. There is no reason why I should not go back to my work at Westmore.”

There was in fact no reason that he could produce; and the next day they returned to Hanaford together.

With her perceptions strung to the last pitch of sensitiveness, she felt a change in Amherst as soon as they re-entered Bessy’s house. He was still scrupulously considerate, almost too scrupulously tender; but with a tinge of lassitude, like a man who tries to keep up under the stupefying approach of illness. And she began to hate the power by which she held him. It was not thus they had once walked together, free in mind though so linked in habit and feeling; when their love was not a deadening drug but a vivifying element that cleared thought instead of stifling it. There were moments when she felt that open alienation would be easier, because it would be nearer the truth. And at such moments she longed to speak, to beg him to utter his mind, to go with her once for all into the depths of the subject they continued to avoid. But at the last her heart always failed her: she could not face the thought of losing him, of hearing him speak estranging words to her.

They had been at Hanaford for about ten days when, one morning at breakfast, Amherst uttered a sudden exclamation over a letter he was reading.

“What is it?” she asked in a tremor.

He had grown very pale, and was pushing the hair from his forehead with the gesture habitual to him in moments of painful indecision.

“What is it?” Justine repeated, her fear growing.

“Nothing —— ” he began, thrusting the letter under the pile of envelopes by his plate; but she continued to look at him anxiously, till she drew his eyes to hers.

“Mr. Langhope writes that they’ve appointed Wyant to Saint Christopher’s,” he said abruptly.

“Oh, the letter — we forgot the letter!” she cried.

“Yes — we forgot the letter.”

“But how dare he ——?”

Amherst said nothing, but the long silence between them seemed full of ironic answers, till she brought out, hardly above her breath: “What shall you do?”

“Write at once — tell Mr. Langhope he’s not fit for the place.”

“Of course —— ” she murmured.

He went on tearing open his other letters, and glancing at their contents. She leaned back in her chair, her cup of coffee untasted, listening to the recurrent crackle of torn paper as he tossed aside one letter after another.

Presently he rose from his seat, and as she followed him from the dining-room she noticed that his breakfast had also remained untasted. He gathered up his letters and walked toward the smoking-room; and after a moment’s hesitation she joined him.

“John,” she said from the threshold.

He was just seating himself at his desk, but he turned to her with an obvious effort at kindness which made the set look of his face the more marked.

She closed the door and went up to him.

“If you write that to Mr. Langhope — Dr. Wyant will — will tell him,” she said.

“Yes — we must be prepared for that.”

She was silent, and Amherst flung himself down on the leather ottoman against the wall. She stood before him, clasping and unclasping her hands in speechless distress.

“What would you have me do?” he asked at length, almost irritably.

“I only thought . . . he told me he would keep straight . . . if he only had a chance,” she faltered out.

Amherst lifted his head slowly, and looked at her. “You mean — I am to do nothing? Is that it?”

She moved nearer to him with beseeching eyes. “I can’t bear it. . . . I can’t bear that others should come between us,” she broke out passionately.

He made no answer, but she could see a look of suffering cross his face, and coming still closer, she sank down on the ottoman, laying her hand on his. “John . . . oh, John, spare me,” she whispered.

For a moment his hand lay quiet under hers; then he drew it out, and enclosed her trembling fingers.

“Very well — I’ll give him a chance — I’ll do nothing,” he said, suddenly putting his other arm about her.

The reaction caught her by the throat, forcing out a dry sob or two; and as she pressed her face against him he raised it up and gently kissed her.

But even as their lips met she felt that they were sealing a treaty with dishonour. That his kiss should come to mean that to her! It was unbearable — worse than any personal pain — the thought of dragging him down to falsehood through her weakness.

She drew back and rose to her feet, putting aside his detaining hand.

“No — no! What am I saying? It can’t be — you must tell the truth.” Her voice gathered strength as she spoke. “Oh, forget what I said — I didn’t mean it!”

But again he seemed sunk in inaction, like a man over whom some baneful lethargy is stealing.

“John — John — forget!” she repeated urgently.

He looked up at her. “You realize what it will mean?”

“Yes — I realize. . . . But it must be. . . . And it will make no difference between us . . . will it?”

“No — no. Why should it?” he answered apathetically.

“Then write — tell Mr. Langhope not to give him the place. I want it over.”

He rose slowly to his feet, without looking at her again, and walked over to the desk. She sank down on the ottoman and watched him with burning eyes while he drew forth a sheet of note-paper and began to write.

But after he had written a few words he laid down his pen, and swung his chair about so that he faced her.

“I can’t do it in this way,” he exclaimed.

“How then? What do you mean?” she said, starting up.

He looked at her. “Do you want the story to come from Wyant?”

“Oh —— ” She looked back at him with sudden insight. “You mean to tell Mr. Langhope yourself?”

“Yes. I mean to take the next train to town and tell him.”

Her trembling increased so much that she had to rest her hands against the edge of the ottoman to steady herself. “But if . . . if after all . . . Wyant should not speak?”

“Well — if he shouldn’t? Could you bear to owe our safety to him?”

“Safety!”

“It comes to that, doesn’t it, if we’re afraid to speak?”

She sat silent, letting the bitter truth of this sink into her till it poured courage into her veins.

“Yes — it comes to that,” she confessed.

“Then you feel as I do?”

“That you must go ——?”

“That this is intolerable!”

The words struck down her last illusion, and she rose and went over to the writing-table. “Yes — go,” she said.

He stood up also, and took both her hands, not in a caress, but gravely, almost severely.

“Listen, Justine. You must understand exactly what this means — may mean. I am willing to go on as we are now . . . as long as we can . . . because I love you . . . because I would do anything to spare you pain. But if I speak I must say everything — I must follow this thing up to its uttermost consequences. That’s what I want to make clear to you.”

Her heart sank with a foreboding of new peril. “What consequences?”

“Can’t you see for yourself — when you look about this house?”

“This house ——?”

He dropped her hands and took an abrupt turn across the room.

“I owe everything to her,” he broke out, “all I am, all I have, all I have been able to give you — and I must go and tell her father that you. . . . ”

“Stop — stop!” she cried, lifting her hands as if to keep off a blow.

“No — don’t make me stop. We must face it,” he said doggedly.

“But this — this isn’t the truth! You put it as if — almost as if —— ”

“Yes — don’t finish. — Has it occurred to you that he may think that?” Amherst asked with a terrible laugh. But at that she recovered her courage, as she always did when an extreme call was made on it.

“No — I don’t believe it! If he does, it will be because you think it yourself. . . . ” Her voice sank, and she lifted her hands and pressed them to her temples. “And if you think it, nothing matters . . . one way or the other. . . . ” She paused, and her voice regained its strength. “That is what I must face before you go: what you think, what you believe of me. You’ve never told me that.”

Amherst, at the challenge, remained silent, while a slow red crept to his cheek-bones.

“Haven’t I told you by — by what I’ve done?” he said slowly.

“No — what you’ve done has covered up what you thought; and I’ve helped you cover it — I’m to blame too! But it was not for this that we . . . that we had that half-year together . . . not to sink into connivance and evasion! I don’t want another hour of sham happiness. I want the truth from you, whatever it is.”

He stood motionless, staring moodily at the floor. “Don’t you see that’s my misery — that I don’t know myself?”

“You don’t know . . . what you think of me?”

“Good God, Justine, why do you try to strip life naked? I don’t know what’s been going on in me these last weeks —— ”

“You must know what you think of my motive . . . for doing what I did.”

She saw in his face how he shrank from the least allusion to the act about which their torment revolved. But he forced himself to raise his head and look at her. “I have never — for one moment — questioned your motive — or failed to see that it was justified . . . under the circumstances. . . . ”

“Oh, John — John!” she broke out in the wild joy of hearing herself absolved; but the next instant her subtle perceptions felt the unconscious reserve behind his admission.

“Your mind justifies me — not your heart; isn’t that your misery?” she said.

He looked at her almost piteously, as if, in the last resort, it was from her that light must come to him. “On my soul, I don’t know . . . I can’t tell . . . it’s all dark in me. I know you did what you thought best . . . if I had been there, I believe I should have asked you to do it . . . but I wish to God —— ”

She interrupted him sobbingly. “Oh, I ought never to have let you love me! I ought to have seen that I was cut off from you forever. I have brought you wretchedness when I would have given my life for you! I don’t deserve that you should forgive me for that.”

Her sudden outbreak seemed to restore his self-possession. He went up to her and took her hand with a quieting touch.

“There is no question of forgiveness, Justine. Don’t let us torture each other with vain repinings. Our business is to face the thing, and we shall be better for having talked it out. I shall be better, for my part, for having told Mr. Langhope. But before I go I want to be sure that you understand the view he may take . . . and the effect it will probably have on our future.”

“Our future?” She started. “No, I don’t understand.”

Amherst paused a moment, as if trying to choose the words least likely to pain her. “Mr. Langhope knows that my marriage was . . . unhappy; through my fault, he no doubt thinks. And if he chooses to infer that . . . that you and I may have cared for each other . . . before . . . and that it was because there was a chance of recovery that you —— ”

“Oh —— ”

“We must face it,” he repeated inflexibly. “And you must understand that, if there is the faintest hint of this kind, I shall give up everything here, as soon as it can be settled legally — God, how Tredegar will like the job! — and you and I will have to go and begin life over again . . . somewhere else.”

For an instant a mad hope swelled in her — the vision of escaping with him into new scenes, a new life, away from the coil of memories that bound them down as in a net. But the reaction of reason came at once — she saw him cut off from his chosen work, his career destroyed, his honour clouded, above all — ah, this was what wrung them both! — his task undone, his people flung back into the depths from which he had lifted them. And all through her doing — all because she had clutched at happiness with too rash a hand! The thought stung her to passionate activity of mind — made her resolve to risk anything, dare anything, before she involved him farther in her own ruin. She felt her brain clear gradually, and the thickness dissolve in her throat.

“I understand,” she said in a low voice, raising her eyes to his.

“And you’re ready to accept the consequences? Think again before it’s too late.”

She paused. “That is what I should like . . . what I wanted to ask you . . . the time to think.”

She saw a slight shade cross his face, as if he had not expected this failure of courage in her; but he said quietly: “You don’t want me to go today?”

“Not today — give me one more day.”

“Very well.”

She laid a timid hand on his arm. “Please go out to Westmore as usual — as if nothing had happened. And tonight . . . when you come back . . . I shall have decided.”

“Very well,” he repeated.

“You’ll be gone all day?”

He glanced at his watch. “Yes — I had meant to be; unless —— ”

“No; I would rather be alone. Good-bye,” she said, letting her hand slip softly along his coat-sleeve as he turned to the door.

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