The Fruit of the Tree eBook: Page1

Edith Wharton (2006)




  Produced by Barbara Tozier, Bill Tozier, Melissa Er-Raqabiand the Online Distributed Proofreading Team athttps://www.pgdp.net

  THE FRUIT OF THE TREE

  He stood by her in silence, his eyes on the injuredman.]

  THE FRUIT OF THE TREEBYEDITH WHARTON

  WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY ALONZO KIMBALL

  NEW YORKCHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONSMDCCCCVII

  COPYRIGHT, 1907, BY CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS

  mark]

  ILLUSTRATIONS

  _He stood by her in silence, his eyes on the injured man_ _Frontispiece__"No--I shall have to ask you to take my word for it"_ _Facing p. 82__Half-way up the slope they met_ 130

  BOOK I

  THE FRUIT OF THE TREE

  I

  IN the surgical ward of the Hope Hospital at Hanaford, a nurse wasbending over a young man whose bandaged right hand and arm lay stretchedalong the bed.

  His head stirred uneasily, and slipping her arm behind him she effecteda professional readjustment of the pillows. "Is that better?"

  As she leaned over, he lifted his anxious bewildered eyes, deep-sunkunder ridges of suffering. "I don't s'pose there's any kind of a showfor me, is there?" he asked, pointing with his free hand--the stainedseamed hand of the mechanic--to the inert bundle on the quilt.

  Her only immediate answer was to wipe the dampness from his forehead;then she said: "We'll talk about that to-morrow."

  "Why not now?"

  "Because Dr. Disbrow can't tell till the inflammation goes down."

  "Will it go down by to-morrow?"

  "It will begin to, if you don't excite yourself and keep up the fever."

  "Excite myself? I--there's four of 'em at home----"

  "Well, then there are four reasons for keeping quiet," she rejoined.

  She did not use, in speaking, the soothing inflection of her trade: sheseemed to disdain to cajole or trick the sufferer. Her full young voicekept its cool note of authority, her sympathy revealing itself only inthe expert touch of her hands and the constant vigilance of her darksteady eyes. This vigilance softened to pity as the patient turned hishead away with a groan. His free left hand continued to travel thesheet, clasping and unclasping itself in contortions of feverish unrest.It was as though all the anguish of his mutilation found expression inthat lonely hand, left without work in the world now that its mate wasuseless.

  The nurse felt a touch on her shoulder, and rose to face the matron, asharp-featured woman with a soft intonation.

  "This is Mr. Amherst, Miss Brent. The assistant manager from the mills.He wishes to see Dillon."

  John Amherst's step was singularly noiseless. The nurse, sensitive bynature and training to all physical characteristics, was struck at onceby the contrast between his alert face and figure and the silent way inwhich he moved. She noticed, too, that the same contrast was repeated inthe face itself, its spare energetic outline, with the high nose andcompressed lips of the mover of men, being curiously modified by theveiled inward gaze of the grey eyes he turned on her. It was one of theinterests of Justine Brent's crowded yet lonely life to attempt a rapidmental classification of the persons she met; but the contradictions inAmherst's face baffled her, and she murmured inwardly "I don't know" asshe drew aside to let him approach the bed. He stood by her in silence,his hands clasped behind him, his eyes on the injured man, who laymotionless, as if sunk in a lethargy. The matron, at the call of anothernurse, had minced away down the ward, committing Amherst with a glanceto Miss Brent; and the two remained alone by the bed.

  After a pause, Amherst moved toward the window beyond the empty cotadjoining Dillon's. One of the white screens used to isolate dyingpatients had been placed against this cot, which was the last at thatend of the ward, and the space beyond formed a secluded corner, where afew words could be exchanged out of reach of the eyes in the other beds.

  "Is he asleep?" Amherst asked, as Miss Brent joined him.

  Miss Brent glanced at him again. His voice betokened not merelyeducation, but something different and deeper--the familiar habit ofgentle speech; and his shabby clothes--carefully brushed, but ill-cutand worn along the seams--sat on him easily, and with the samedifference.

  "The morphine has made him drowsy," she answered. "The wounds weredressed about an hour ago, and the doctor gave him a hypodermic."

  "The wounds--how many are there?"

  "Besides the hand, his arm is badly torn up to the elbow."

  Amherst listened with bent head and frowning brow.

  "What do you think of the case?"

  She hesitated. "Dr. Disbrow hasn't said----"

  "And it's not your business to?" He smiled slightly. "I know hospitaletiquette. But I have a particular reason for asking." He broke off andlooked at her again, his veiled gaze sharpening to a glance ofconcentrated attention. "You're not one of the regular nurses, are you?Your dress seems to be of a different colour."

  She smiled at the "seems to be," which denoted a tardy and imperfectapprehension of the difference between dark-blue linen and white.

  "No: I happened to be staying at Hanaford, and hearing that they were inwant of a surgical nurse, I offered my help."

  Amherst nodded. "So much the better. Is there any place where I can saytwo words to you?"

  "I could hardly leave the ward now, unless Mrs. Ogan comes back."

  "I don't care to have you call Mrs. Ogan," he interposed quickly. "Whendo you go off duty?"

  She looked at him in surprise. "If what you want to ask aboutis--anything connected with the management of things here--you knowwe're not supposed to talk of our patients outside of the hospital."

  "I know. But I am going to ask you to break through the rule--in thatpoor fellow's behalf."

  A protest wavered on her lip, but he held her eyes steadily, with aglint of good-humour behind his determination. "When do you go offduty?"

  "At six."

  "I'll wait at the corner of South Street and walk a little way with you.Let me put my case, and if you're not convinced you can refuse toanswer."

  "Very well," she said, without farther hesitation; and Amherst, with aslight nod of farewell, passed through the door near which they had beenstanding.