Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XXXVIII

AT half-past six that afternoon, just as Amherst, on his return from the mills, put the key into his door at Hanaford, Mrs. Ansell, in New York, was being shown into Mr. Langhope’s library.

As she entered, her friend rose from his chair by the fire, and turned on her a face so disordered by emotion that she stopped short with an exclamation of alarm.

“Henry — what has happened? Why did you send for me?”

“Because I couldn’t go to you. I couldn’t trust myself in the streets — in the light of day.”

“But why? What is it? — Not Cicely ——?”

He struck both hands upward with a comprehensive gesture. “Cicely — everyone — the whole world!” His clenched fist came down on the table against which he was leaning. “Maria, my girl might have been saved!”

Mrs. Ansell looked at him with growing perturbation. “Saved — Bessy’s life? But how? By whom?”

“She might have been allowed to live, I mean — to recover. She was killed, Maria; that woman killed her!”

Mrs. Ansell, with another cry of bewilderment, let herself drop helplessly into the nearest chair. “In heaven’s name, Henry — what woman?”

He seated himself opposite to her, clutching at his stick, and leaning his weight heavily on it — a white dishevelled old man. “I wonder why you ask — just to spare me?”

Their eyes met in a piercing exchange of question and answer, and Mrs. Ansell tried to bring out reasonably: “I ask in order to understand what you are saying.”

“Well, then, if you insist on keeping up appearances — my daughter-in-law killed my daughter. There you have it.” He laughed silently, with a tear on his reddened eye-lids.

Mrs. Ansell groaned. “Henry, you are raving — I understand less and less.”

“I don’t see how I can speak more plainly. She told me so herself, in this room, not an hour ago.”

“She told you? Who told you?”

“John Amherst’s wife. Told me she’d killed my child. It’s as easy as breathing — if you know how to use a morphia-needle.”

Light seemed at last to break on his hearer. “Oh, my poor Henry — you mean — she gave too much? There was some dreadful accident?”

“There was no accident. She killed my child — killed her deliberately. Don’t look at me as if I were a madman. She sat in that chair you’re in when she told me.”

“Justine? Has she been here today?” Mrs. Ansell paused in a painful effort to readjust her thoughts. “But why did she tell you?”

“That’s simple enough. To prevent Wyant’s doing it.”

“Oh —— ” broke from his hearer, in a long sigh of fear and intelligence. Mr. Langhope looked at her with a smile of miserable exultation.

“You knew — you suspected all along? — But now you must speak out!” he exclaimed with a sudden note of command.

She sat motionless, as if trying to collect herself. “I know nothing — I only meant — why was this never known before?”

He was upon her at once. “You think — because they understood each other? And now there’s been a break between them? He wanted too big a share of the spoils? Oh, it’s all so abysmally vile!”

He covered his face with a shaking hand, and Mrs. Ansell remained silent, plunged in a speechless misery of conjecture. At length she regained some measure of her habitual composure, and leaning forward, with her eyes on his face, said in a quiet tone: “If I am to help you, you must try to tell me just what has happened.”

He made an impatient gesture. “Haven’t I told you? She found that her accomplice meant to speak, and rushed to town to forestall him.”

Mrs. Ansell reflected. “But why — with his place at Saint Christopher’s secured — did Dr. Wyant choose this time to threaten her — if, as you imagine, he’s an accomplice?”

“Because he’s a drug-taker, and she didn’t wish him to have the place.”

“She didn’t wish it? But that does not look as if she were afraid. She had only to hold her tongue!”

Mr. Langhope laughed sardonically. “It’s not quite so simple. Amherst was coming to town to tell me.”

“Ah — he knows?”

“Yes — and she preferred that I should have her version first.”

“And what is her version?”

The furrows of misery deepened in Mr. Langhope’s face. “Maria — don’t ask too much of me! I can’t go over it again. She says she wanted to spare my child — she says the doctors were keeping her alive, torturing her uselessly, as a . . . a sort of scientific experiment. . . . She forced on me the hideous details. . . . ”

Mrs. Ansell waited a moment.

“Well! May it not be true?”

“Wyant’s version is different. He says Bessy would have recovered — he says Garford thought so too.”

“And what does she answer? She denies it?”

“No. She admits that Garford was in doubt. But she says the chance was too remote — the pain too bad . . . that’s her cue, naturally!”

Mrs. Ansell, leaning back in her chair, with hands meditatively stretched along its arms, gave herself up to silent consideration of the fragmentary statements cast before her. The long habit of ministering to her friends in moments of perplexity and distress had given her an almost judicial keenness in disentangling and coordinating facts incoherently presented, and in seizing on the thread of motive that connected them; but she had never before been confronted with a situation so poignant in itself, and bearing so intimately on her personal feelings; and she needed time to free her thoughts from the impending rush of emotion.

At last she raised her head and said: “Why did Mr. Amherst let her come to you, instead of coming himself?”

“He knows nothing of her being here. She persuaded him to wait a day, and as soon as he had gone to the mills this morning she took the first train to town.”

“Ah —— ” Mrs. Ansell murmured thoughtfully; and Mr. Langhope rejoined, with a conclusive gesture: “Do you want more proofs of panic-stricken guilt?”

“Oh, guilt — ” His friend revolved her large soft muff about a drooping hand. “There’s so much still to understand.”

“Your mind does not, as a rule, work so slowly!” he said with some asperity; but she paid no heed to his tone.

“Amherst, for instance — how long has he known of this?” she continued.

“A week or two only — she made that clear.”

“And what is his attitude?”

“Ah — that, I conjecture, is just what she means to keep us from knowing!”

“You mean she’s afraid ——?”

Mr. Langhope gathered his haggard brows in a frown. “She’s afraid, of course — mortally — I never saw a woman more afraid. I only wonder she had the courage to face me.”

“Ah — that’s it! Why did she face you? To extenuate her act — to give you her version, because she feared his might be worse? Do you gather that that was her motive?”

It was Mr. Langhope’s turn to hesitate. He furrowed the thick Turkey rug with the point of his ebony stick, pausing once or twice to revolve it gimlet-like in a gap of the pile.

“Not her avowed motive, naturally.”

“Well — at least, then, let me have that.”

“Her avowed motive? Oh, she’d prepared one, of course — trust her to have a dozen ready! The one she produced was — simply the desire to protect her husband.”

“Her husband? Does he too need protection?”

“My God, if he takes her side ——! At any rate, her fear seemed to be that what she had done might ruin him; might cause him to feel — as well he may! — that the mere fact of being her husband makes his situation as Cicely’s step-father, as my son-in-law, intolerable. And she came to clear him, as it were — to find out, in short, on what terms I should be willing to continue my present relations with him as though this hideous thing had not been known to me.”

Mrs. Ansell raised her head quickly. “Well — and what were your terms?”

He hesitated. “She spared me the pain of proposing any — I had only to accept hers.”

“Hers?”

“That she should disappear altogether from my sight — and from the child’s, naturally. Good heaven, I should like to include Amherst in that! But I’m tied hand and foot, as you see, by Cicely’s interests; and I’m bound to say she exonerated him completely — completely!”

Mrs. Ansell was again silent, but a swift flight of thoughts traversed her drooping face. “But if you are to remain on the old terms with her husband, how is she to disappear out of your life without also disappearing out of his?”

Mr. Langhope gave a slight laugh. “I leave her to work out that problem.”

“And you think Amherst will consent to such conditions?”

“He’s not to know of them.”

The unexpectedness of the reply reduced Mrs. Ansell to a sound of inarticulate interrogation; and Mr. Langhope continued: “Not at first, that is. She had thought it all out — foreseen everything; and she wrung from me — I don’t yet know how! — a promise that when I saw him I would make it appear that I cleared him completely, not only of any possible complicity, or whatever you choose to call it, but of any sort of connection with the matter in my thoughts of him. I am, in short, to let him feel that he and I are to continue on the old footing — and I agreed, on the condition of her effacing herself somehow — of course on some other pretext.”

“Some other pretext? But what conceivable pretext? My poor friend, he adores her!”

Mr. Langhope raised his eyebrows slightly. “We haven’t seen him since this became known to him. She has; and she let slip that he was horror-struck.”

Mrs. Ansell looked up with a quick exclamation. “Let slip? Isn’t it much more likely that she forced it on you — emphasized it to the last limit of credulity?” She sank her hands to the arms of the chair, and exclaimed, looking him straight in the eyes: “You say she was frightened? It strikes me she was dauntless!”

Mr. Langhope stared a moment; then he said, with an ironic shrug: “No doubt, then, she counted on its striking me too.”

Mrs. Ansell breathed a shuddering sigh. “Oh, I understand your feeling as you do — I’m deep in the horror of it myself. But I can’t help seeing that this woman might have saved herself — and that she’s chosen to save her husband instead. What I don’t see, from what I know of him,” she musingly proceeded, “is how, on any imaginable pretext, she will induce him to accept the sacrifice.”

Mr. Langhope made a resentful movement. “If that’s the only point your mind dwells on ——!”

Mrs. Ansell looked up. “It doesn’t dwell anywhere as yet — except, my poor Henry,” she murmured, rising to move toward him, and softly laying her hand on his bent shoulder — “except on your distress and misery — on the very part I can’t yet talk of, can’t question you about. . . . ”

He let her hand rest there a moment; then he turned, and drawing it into his own tremulous fingers, pressed it silently, with a clinging helpless grasp that drew the tears to her eyes.

Justine Brent, in her earliest girlhood, had gone through one of those emotional experiences that are the infantile diseases of the heart. She had fancied herself beloved of a youth of her own age; had secretly returned his devotion, and had seen it reft from her by another. Such an incident, as inevitable as the measles, sometimes, like that mild malady, leaves traces out of all proportion to its actual virulence. The blow fell on Justine with tragic suddenness, and she reeled under it, thinking darkly of death, and renouncing all hopes of future happiness. Her ready pen often beguiled her into recording her impressions, and she now found an escape from despair in writing the history of a damsel similarly wronged. In her tale, the heroine killed herself; but the author, saved by this vicarious sacrifice, lived, and in time even smiled over her manuscript.

It was many years since Justine Amherst had recalled this youthful incident; but the memory of it recurred to her as she turned from Mr. Langhope’s door. For a moment death seemed the easiest escape from what confronted her; but though she could no longer medicine her despair by turning it into fiction, she knew at once that she must somehow transpose it into terms of action, that she must always escape from life into more life, and not into its negation.

She had been carried into Mr. Langhope’s presence by that expiatory passion which still burns so high, and draws its sustenance from so deep down, in the unsleeping hearts of women. Though she had never wavered in her conviction that her act had been justified her ideas staggered under the sudden comprehension of its consequences. Not till that morning had she seen those consequences in their terrible, unsuspected extent, had she understood how one stone rashly loosened from the laboriously erected structure of human society may produce remote fissures in that clumsy fabric. She saw that, having hazarded the loosening of the stone, she should have held herself apart from ordinary human ties, like some priestess set apart for the service of the temple. And instead, she had seized happiness with both hands, taken it as the gift of the very fate she had herself precipitated! She remembered some old Greek saying to the effect that the gods never forgive the mortal who presumes to love and suffer like a god. She had dared to do both, and the gods were bringing ruin on that deeper self which had its life in those about her.

So much had become clear to her when she heard Amherst declare his intention of laying the facts before Mr. Langhope. His few broken words lit up the farthest verge of their lives. She saw that his retrospective reverence for his wife’s memory, which was far as possible removed from the strong passion of the mind and senses that bound him to herself, was indelibly stained and desecrated by the discovery that all he had received from the one woman had been won for him by the deliberate act of the other. This was what no reasoning, no appeal to the calmer judgment, could ever, in his inmost thoughts, undo or extenuate. It could find appeasement only in the renunciation of all that had come to him from Bessy; and this renunciation, so different from the mere sacrifice of material well-being, was bound up with consequences so far-reaching, so destructive to the cause which had inspired his whole life, that Justine felt the helpless terror of the mortal who has launched one of the heavenly bolts.

She could think of no way of diverting it but the way she had chosen. She must see Mr. Langhope first, must clear Amherst of the least faint association with her act or her intention. And to do this she must exaggerate, not her own compunction — for she could not depart from the exact truth in reporting her feelings and convictions — but her husband’s first instinctive movement of horror, the revulsion of feeling her confession had really produced in him. This was the most painful part of her task, and for this reason her excited imagination clothed it with a special expiatory value. If she could purchase Amherst’s peace of mind, and the security of his future, by confessing, and even over-emphasizing, the momentary estrangement between them there would be a bitter joy in such payment!

Her hour with Mr. Langhope proved the correctness of her intuition. She could save Amherst only by effacing herself from his life: those about him would be only too ready to let her bear the full burden of obloquy. She could see that, for a dozen reasons, Mr. Langhope, even in the first shock of his dismay, unconsciously craved a way of exonerating Amherst, of preserving intact the relation on which so much of his comfort had come to depend. And she had the courage to make the most of his desire, to fortify it by isolating Amherst’s point of view from hers; so that, when the hour was over, she had the solace of feeling that she had completely freed him from any conceivable consequence of her act.

So far, the impetus of self-sacrifice had carried her straight to her goal; but, as frequently happens with such atoning impulses, it left her stranded just short of any subsequent plan of conduct. Her next step, indeed, was clear enough: she must return to Hanaford, explain to her husband that she had felt impelled to tell her own story to Mr. Langhope, and then take up her ordinary life till chance offered her a pretext for fulfilling her promise. But what pretext was likely to present itself? No symbolic horn would sound the hour of fulfillment; she must be her own judge, and hear the call in the depths of her own conscience.

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