Fruit of the Tree, by Edith Wharton

XLII

JUSTINE’S answer to her husband’s letter bore a New York address; and the surprise of finding her in the same town with himself, and not half an hour’s walk from the room in which he sat, was so great that it seemed to demand some sudden and violent outlet of physical movement.

He thrust the letter in his pocket, took up his hat, and leaving the house, strode up Fifth Avenue toward the Park in the early spring sunlight.

The news had taken five days to reach him, for in order to reestablish communication with his wife he had been obliged to write to Michigan, with the request that his letter should be forwarded. He had never supposed that Justine would be hard to find, or that she had purposely enveloped her movements in mystery. When she ceased to write he had simply concluded that, like himself, she felt the mockery of trying to keep up a sort of distant, semi-fraternal relation, marked by the occasional interchange of inexpressive letters. The inextricable mingling of thought and sensation which made the peculiar closeness of their union could never, to such direct and passionate natures, be replaced by the pretense of a temperate friendship. Feeling thus himself, and instinctively assuming the same feeling in his wife, Amherst had respected her silence, her wish to break definitely with their former life. She had written him, in the autumn, that she intended to leave Michigan for a few months, but that, in any emergency, a letter addressed to her friend’s house would reach her; and he had taken this as meaning that, unless the emergency arose, she preferred that their correspondence should cease. Acquiescence was all the easier because it accorded with his own desire. It seemed to him, as he looked back, that the love he and Justine had felt for each other was like some rare organism which could maintain life only in its special element; and that element was neither passion nor sentiment, but truth. It was only on the heights that they could breathe.

Some men, in his place, even while accepting the inevitableness of the moral rupture, would have felt concerned for the material side of the case. But it was characteristic of Amherst that this did not trouble him. He took it for granted that his wife would return to her nursing. From the first he had felt certain that it would be intolerable to her to accept aid from him, and that she would choose rather to support herself by the exercise of her regular profession; and, aside from such motives, he, who had always turned to hard work as the rarest refuge from personal misery, thought it natural that she should seek the same means of escape.

He had therefore not been surprised, on opening her letter that morning, to learn that she had taken up her hospital work; but in the amazement of finding her so near he hardly grasped her explanation of the coincidence. There was something about a Buffalo patient suddenly ordered to New York for special treatment, and refusing to go in with a new nurse — but these details made no impression on his mind, which had only room for the fact that chance had brought his wife back at the very moment when his whole being yearned for her.

She wrote that, owing to her duties, she would be unable to see him till three that afternoon; and he had still six hours to consume before their meeting. But in spirit they had met already — they were one in an intensity of communion which, as he strode northward along the bright crowded thoroughfare, seemed to gather up the whole world into one throbbing point of life.

He had a boyish wish to keep the secret of his happiness to himself, not to let Mr. Langhope or Mrs. Ansell know of his meeting with Justine till it was over; and after twice measuring the length of the Park he turned in at one of the little wooden restaurants which were beginning to unshutter themselves in anticipation of spring custom. If only he could have seen Justine that morning! If he could have brought her there, and they could have sat opposite each other, in the bare empty room, with sparrows bustling and twittering in the lilacs against the open window! The room was ugly enough — but how she would have delighted in the delicate green of the near slopes, and the purplish haze of the woods beyond! She took a childish pleasure in such small adventures, and had the knack of giving a touch of magic to their most commonplace details. Amherst, as he finished his cold beef and indifferent eggs, found himself boyishly planning to bring her back there the next day. . . .

Then, over the coffee, he re-read her letter.

The address she gave was that of a small private hospital, and she explained that she would have to receive him in the public parlour, which at that hour was open to other visitors. As the time approached, the thought that they might not be alone when they met became insufferable; and he determined, if he found any one else, in possession of the parlour, to wait in the hall, and meet her as she came down the stairs.

He continued to elaborate this plan as he walked back slowly through the Park, He had timed himself to reach the hospital a little before three; but though it lacked five minutes to the hour when he entered the parlour, two women were already seated in one of its windows. They looked around as he came in, evidently as much annoyed by his appearance as he had been to find them there. The older of the two showed a sallow middle-aged face beneath her limp crape veil; the other was a slight tawdry creature, with nodding feathers, and innumerable chains and bracelets which she fingered ceaselessly as she talked.

They eyed Amherst with resentment, and then turned away, continuing their talk in low murmurs, while he seated himself at the marble-topped table littered with torn magazines. Now and then the younger woman’s voice rose in a shrill staccato, and a phrase or two floated over to him. “She’d simply worked herself to death — the nurse told me so. . . . She expects to go home in another week, though how she’s going to stand the fatigue —— ” and then, after an inaudible answer: “It’s all his fault, and if I was her I wouldn’t go back to him for anything!”

“Oh, Cora, he’s real sorry now,” the older woman protestingly murmured; but the other, unappeased, rejoined with ominously nodding plumes: “You see — if they do make it up, it’ll never be the same between them!”

Amherst started up nervously, and as he did so the clock struck three, and he opened the door and passed out into the hall. It was paved with black and white marble; the walls were washed in a dull yellowish tint, and the prevalent odour of antiseptics was mingled with a stale smell of cooking. At the back rose a straight staircase carpeted with brass-bound India-rubber, like a ship’s companion-way; and down that staircase she would come in a moment — he fancied he heard her step now. . . .

But the step was that of an elderly black-gowned woman in a cap — the matron probably.

She glanced at Amherst in surprise, and asked: “Are you waiting for some one?”

He made a motion of assent, and she opened the parlour door, saying: “Please walk in.”

“May I not wait out here?” he urged.

She looked at him more attentively. “Why, no, I’m afraid not. You’ll find the papers and magazines in here.”

Mildly but firmly she drove him in before her, and closing the door, advanced to the two women in the window. Amherst’s hopes leapt up: perhaps she had come to fetch the visitors upstairs! He strained his ears to catch what was being said, and while he was thus absorbed the door opened, and turning at the sound he found himself face to face with his wife.

He had not reflected that Justine would be in her nurse’s dress; and the sight of the dark blue uniform and small white cap, in which he had never seen her since their first meeting in the Hope Hospital, obliterated all bitter and unhappy memories, and gave him the illusion of passing back at once into the clear air of their early friendship. Then he looked at her and remembered.

He noticed that she had grown thinner than ever, or rather that her thinness, which had formerly had a healthy reed-like strength, now suggested fatigue and languor. And her face was spent, extinguished — the very eyes were lifeless. All her vitality seemed to have withdrawn itself into the arch of dense black hair which still clasped her forehead like the noble metal of some antique bust.

The sight stirred him with a deeper pity, a more vehement compunction; but the impulse to snatch her to him, and seek his pardon on her lips, was paralyzed by the sense that the three women in the window had stopped talking and turned their heads toward the door.

He held his hand out, and Justine’s touched it for a moment; then he said in a low voice: “Is there no other place where I can see you?”

She made a negative gesture. “I am afraid not to-day.”

Ah, her deep sweet voice — how completely his ear had lost the sound of it!

She looked doubtfully about the room, and pointed to a sofa at the end farthest from the windows.

“Shall we sit there?” she said.

He followed her in silence, and they sat down side by side. The matron had drawn up a chair and resumed her whispered conference with the women in the window. Between the two groups stretched the bare length of the room, broken only by a few arm-chairs of stained wood, and the marble-topped table covered with magazines.

The impossibility of giving free rein to his feelings developed in Amherst an unwonted intensity of perception, as though a sixth sense had suddenly emerged to take the place of those he could not use. And with this new-made faculty he seemed to gather up, and absorb into himself, as he had never done in their hours of closest communion, every detail of his wife’s person, of her face and hands and gestures. He noticed how her full upper lids, of the tint of yellowish ivory, had a slight bluish discolouration, and how little thread-like blue veins ran across her temples to the roots of her hair. The emaciation of her face, and the hollow shades beneath her cheek-bones, made her mouth seem redder and fuller, though a little line on each side, where it joined the cheek, gave it a tragic droop. And her hands! When her fingers met his he recalled having once picked up, in the winter woods, the little feather-light skeleton of a frozen bird — and that was what her touch was like.

And it was he who had brought her to this by his cruelty, his obtuseness, his base readiness to believe the worst of her! He did not want to pour himself out in self-accusation — that seemed too easy a way of escape. He wanted simply to take her in his arms, to ask her to give him one more chance — and then to show her! And all the while he was paralyzed by the group in the window.

“Can’t we go out? I must speak to you,” he began again nervously.

“Not this afternoon — the doctor is coming. Tomorrow —— ”

“I can’t wait for tomorrow!”

She made a faint, imperceptible gesture, which read to his eyes: “You’ve waited a whole year.”

“Yes, I know,” he returned, still constrained by the necessity of muffling his voice, of perpetually measuring the distance between themselves and the window. “I know what you might say — don’t you suppose I’ve said it to myself a million times? But I didn’t know — I couldn’t imagine —— ”

She interrupted him with a rapid movement. “What do you know now?”

“What you promised Langhope —— ”

She turned her startled eyes on him, and he saw the blood run flame-like under her skin. “But he promised not to speak!” she cried.

“He hasn’t — to me. But such things make themselves known. Should you have been content to go on in that way forever?”

She raised her head and her eyes rested in his. “If you were,” she answered simply.

“Justine!”

Again she checked him with a silencing motion. “Please tell me just what has happened.”

“Not now — there’s too much else to say. And nothing matters except that I’m with you.”

“But Mr. Langhope —— ”

“He asks you to come. You’re to see Cicely to-morrow.”

Her lower lip trembled a little, and a tear flowed over and hung on her lashes.

“But what does all that matter now? We’re together after this horrible year,” he insisted.

She looked at him again. “But what is really changed?”

“Everything — everything! Not changed, I mean — just gone back.”

“To where . . . we were . . . before?” she whispered; and he whispered back: “To where we were before.”

There was a scraping of chairs on the floor, and with a sense of release Amherst saw that the colloquy in the window was over.

The two visitors, gathering their wraps about them, moved slowly across the room, still talking to the matron in excited undertones, through which, as they neared the threshold, the younger woman’s staccato again broke out.

“I tell you, if she does go back to him, it’ll never be the same between them!”

“Oh, Cora, I wouldn’t say that,” the other ineffectually wailed; then they moved toward the door, and a moment later it had closed on them.

Amherst turned to his wife with outstretched arms. “Say you forgive me, Justine!”

She held back a little from his entreating hands, not reproachfully, but as if with a last scruple for himself.

“There’s nothing left . . . of the horror?” she asked below her breath.

“To be without you — that’s the only horror!”

“You’re sure ——?”

“Sure!”

“It’s just the same to you . . . just as it was . . . before?”

“Just the same, Justine!”

“It’s not for myself, but you.”

“Then, for me — never speak of it!” he implored.

“Because it’s not the same, then?” leapt from her.

“Because it’s wiped out — because it’s never been!”

“Never?”

“Never!”

He felt her yield to him at that, and under his eyes, close under his lips, was her face at last. But as they kissed they heard the handle of the door turn, and drew apart quickly, her hand lingering in his under the fold of her dress.

A nurse looked in, dressed in the white uniform and pointed cap of the hospital. Amherst fancied that she smiled a little as she saw them.

“Miss Brent — the doctor wants you to come right up and give the morphine.”

The door shut again as Justine rose to her feet. Amherst remained seated — he had made no motion to retain her hand as it slipped from him.

“I’m coming,” she called out to the retreating nurse; then she turned slowly and saw her husband’s face.

“I must go,” she said in a low tone.

Her eyes met his for a moment; but he looked away again as he stood up and reached for his hat.

“Tomorrow, then —— ” he said, without attempting to detain her.

“Tomorrow?”

“You must come away from here — you must come home,” he repeated mechanically.

She made no answer, and he held his hand out and took hers. “Tomorrow,” he said, drawing her toward him; and their lips met again, but not in the same kiss.

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