The Children, by Edith Wharton

Book I

I

As the big liner hung over the tugs swarming about her in the bay of Algiers, Martin Boyne looked down from the promenade deck on the troop of first-class passengers struggling up the gangway, their faces all unconsciously lifted to his inspection.

“Not a soul I shall want to speak to — as usual!”

Some men’s luck in travelling was inconceivable. They had only to get into a train or on board a boat to run across an old friend; or, what was more exciting, make a new one. They were always finding themselves in the same compartment, or in the same cabin, with some wandering celebrity, with the owner of a famous house, of a noted collection, or of an odd and amusing personality — the latter case being, of course, the rarest as it was the most rewarding.

There was, for instance, Martin Boyne’s own Great–Uncle Edward. Uncle Edward’s travel-adventures were famed in the family. At home in America, amid the solemn upholstery of his Boston house, Uncle Edward was the model of complacent dulness; yet whenever he got on board a steamer, or into a train (or a diligence, in his distant youth), he was singled out by fate as the hero of some delightful encounter. It would be Rachel during her ill-starred tour of the States; Ruskin on the lake of Geneva; the Dean of Canterbury as Uncle Edward, with all the appropriate emotions, was gazing on the tomb of the Black Prince; or the Duke of Devonshire of his day, as Uncle Edward put a courteous (but probably pointless) question to the housekeeper showing him over Chatsworth. And instantly he would receive a proscenium box from Rachel for her legendary first night in Boston, or be entreated by Ruskin to join him for a month in Venice; or the Dean would invite him to stay at the Deanery, the Duke at Chatsworth; and the net result of these experiences would be that Uncle Edward, if questioned, would reply with his sweet frosty smile: “Yes, Rachel had talent but no beauty”; or: “No one could be more simple and friendly than the Duke”; or: “Ruskin really had all the appearances of a gentleman.” Such were the impressions produced on Uncle Edward by his unparalleled success in the great social scenes through which, for a period of over sixty years, he moved with benignant blindness.

Far different was the case of his great-nephew. No tremor of thought or emotion would, in similar situations, have escaped Martin Boyne: he would have burst all the grapes against his palate. But though he was given to travel, and though he had travelled much, and his profession as a civil engineer had taken him to interesting and out-of-the-way parts of the world, and though he was always on the alert for agreeable encounters, it was never at such times that they came to him. He would have loved adventure, but adventure worthy of the name perpetually eluded him; and when it has eluded a man till he is over forty it is not likely to seek him out later.

“I believe it’s something about the shape of my nose,” he had said to himself that very morning as he shaved in his spacious cabin on the upper deck of the big Mediterranean cruising-steamer.

The nose in question was undoubtedly not adventurous in shape; it did not thrust itself far forward into other people’s affairs; and the eyes above, wide apart, deep-set, and narrowed for closer observation, were of a guarded twilight gray which gave the nose no encouragement whatever.

“Nobody worth bothering about — AS USUAL,” he grumbled. For the day was so lovely, the harbour of Algiers so glittering with light and heat, his own mood so full of holiday enterprise — it was his first vacation after a good many months on a hard exhausting job — that he could hardly believe he really looked to the rest of the world as he had seen himself that morning: a critical cautious man of forty~six, whom nobody could possibly associate with the romantic or the unexpected.

“Usual luck; best I can hope for is to keep my cabin to myself for the rest of the cruise,” he pondered philosophically, hugging himself at the prospect of another fortnight of sea-solitude before — well, before the fateful uncertainty of what awaited him just beyond the voyage. . .

“And I haven’t even SEEN her for five years!” he reflected, with that feeling of hollowness about the belt which prolonged apprehension gives.

Passengers were still climbing the ship’s side, and he leaned and looked again, this time with contracted eyes and a slight widening of his cautious nostrils. His attention had been drawn to a young woman — a slip of a girl, rather — with a round flushed baby on her shoulder, a baby much too heavy for her slender frame, but on whose sleepy countenance her own was bent with a gaze of solicitude which wrung a murmur of admiration from Boyne.

“Jove — if a fellow was younger!”

Men of forty-six do not gasp as frequently at the sight of a charming face as they did at twenty; but when the sight strikes them it hits harder. Boyne had not been looking for pretty faces but for interesting ones, and it rather disturbed him to be put off his quest by anything so out of his present way as excessive youth and a rather pathetic grace.

“Lord — the child’s ever so much too heavy for her. Must have been married out of the nursery: damned cad, not to — ”

The young face mounting toward him continued to bend over the baby, the girl’s frail shoulders to droop increasingly under their burden, as the congestion ahead of her forced the young lady to maintain her slanting position halfway up the liner’s flank.

A nurse in correct bonnet and veil touched her shoulder, as if offering to relieve her; but she only tightened her arm about the child. Whereupon the nurse, bending, lifted in her own arms a carrot-headed little girl of four or five in a gaudy gipsy-like frock.

“What — another? Why, it’s barbarous; it ought to be against the law! The poor little thing — ”

Here Boyne’s attention was distracted by the passage of a deck~steward asking where he wished his chair placed. He turned to attend to this matter, and saw, on the chair next to his, a tag bearing the name: “Mrs. Cliffe Wheater.”

Cliffe Wheater — Cliffe Wheater! What an absurd name . . . and somehow he remembered to have smiled over it in the same way years before . . . But, good Lord, of COURSE! How long he must have lived out of the world, on his engineering jobs, first in the Argentine, then in Australia, and since the war in Egypt — how out of step he must have become with the old social dance of New York, not to situate Cliffe Wheater at once as the big red-faced Chicagoan who was at Harvard with him, and who had since become one of the showiest of New York millionaires. Cliffe Wheater, of course — the kind of fellow who was spoken of, respectfully, as having “interests” everywhere: Boyne recalled having run across Wheater “interests” even in the Argentine. But the man himself, at any rate since his marriage, was reputed to be mainly interested in Ritz Hotels and powerful motorcars. Hadn’t he a steam-yacht too? He had a wife, at any rate — it was all coming back to Boyne: he had married, it must be sixteen or seventeen years ago, that good~looking Mervin girl, of New York — Joyce Mervin — whom Boyne himself had danced and flirted with through a remote winter not long after Harvard. Joyce Mervin: she had written to him to announce her engagement, had enclosed a little snap-shot of herself with “Goodbye, Martin,” scrawled across it. Had she rather fancied Boyne — Boyne wondered? He had been too poor to try to find out . . . And now he and she were going to be deck-neighbours for a fortnight on the magic seas between Algiers and Venice! He remembered the face he had contemplated that morning in his shaving~glass, and thought: “Very likely she hasn’t changed a bit; smart women last so wonderfully; but she won’t know ME.” The idea was half depressing and half reassuring. After all, it would enable him to take his observations — and to have his deck-chair moved, should the result be disappointing.

The ship had shaken her insect-like flock of tugs and sailing-boats off her quivering flanks; and now the great blue level spread before her as she headed away toward the morning. Boyne got a book, pulled his hat over his nose, and stretched out in his deck~chair, awaiting Mrs. Wheater. . .

“This will do — yes, I think this will do,” said a fluty immature voice, a girl’s voice, at his elbow. Boyne tilted his head back, and saw, a few steps off, the slim girl who had carried the heavy baby up the gangway.

The girl paused, glanced along the line of seats in his direction, nodded to a deck-steward, and disappeared into the doorway of a “luxe” suite farther forward. In the moment of her pause Boyne caught a small pale face with anxiously wrinkled brows above brown eyes of tragic width, and round red lips which, at the least provocation, might bubble with healthy laughter. It did not occur to him now to ask if the face were pretty or not — there were too many things going on in it for that.

As she entered her cabin he heard her say, in her firm quick voice, to some one within: “Nanny, has Chip had his Benger? Who’s got the cabin with Terry?”

“What a mother!” Boyne thought, still wondering if it were not much too soon for that maternal frown to have shadowed her young forehead.

“Beg pardon, sir — there’s a new passenger booked for your cabin.” The steward was passing with a couple of good-looking suit-cases and a bundle of rugs.

“Oh, damn — well, it had to happen!” Boyne, with a groan, stood up and followed the steward. “Who is it, do you know?”

“Couldn’t say, sir. Wheater — Wheater’s the name.”

Well, at last a coincidence! Mrs. Cliffe Wheater’s chair was next to his own, and his old Harvard class-mate was to share his cabin with him. Boyne, if not wholly pleased, was at least faintly excited and interested by this unexpected combination of circumstances.

He turned, and saw a little boy standing in the door of the cabin, mustering him with a dispassionate eye.

“All right — this will do,” said the boy quietly. He spoke in a slightly high-pitched voice, neither querulous nor effeminate, but simply thin and a little tired, like his slender person. Boyne guessed him to be about eleven years old, and too tall and reasonable for his age — another evidence of the physical frailty betrayed by his voice. He was neatly dressed in English school-boy clothes, but he did not look English, he looked cosmopolitan: as if he had been sharpened and worn down by contact with too many different civilizations — or perhaps merely with too many different hotels.

He continued to examine Boyne, critically but amicably; then he remarked: “I’m in here, you know.”

“You are? I thought it was to be your father!”

“Oh, did you? That’s funny. Do you know my father?”

“I used to. In fact, I think we were at Harvard together.”

Young master Wheater looked but faintly interested. “Would you mind telling me your name?” he asked, as if acquitting himself of a recognized social duty.

“My name’s Boyne: Martin Boyne. But it’s so long since your father and I met that he wouldn’t have been likely to speak of me.”

Mr. Wheater’s son reflected. “Well, I shouldn’t have been likely to be there if he did. We’re not so awfully much with father,” he added, with a seeming desire for accuracy.

A little girl of his own age and size, but whose pale fairness had a warmer glow, had advanced a step or two into the cabin, and now slipped an arm through his.

“I’ve been hunting for you everywhere,” she said. “Judith sent me.”

“Well, here’s where I am: with this gentleman.”

The little girl lifted her deeply fringed lids and bent on Boyne the full gaze of two large and accomplished gray eyes. Then she pursed up her poppy-red lips and looked at her brother. “For a whole fortnight — Terry, can you BEAR it?”

The boy flushed and pulled away his arm. “Shut up, you ass!” he admonished her.

“Do let me ask Judith to tip the steward — ”

He swung about on her angrily. “WILL you shut up when I tell you to? This gentleman’s a friend of father’s.”

“Oh — ” the little girl murmured; and then added, after another fringed flash at Boyne: “He doesn’t look it.”

“Blanca — will you please get out of here?”

She wavered, her bright lips trembled, and she turned in confusion and ran down the deck. “She doesn’t know anything — she’s only my twin,” said Terry Wheater apologetically.

He completed his scrutiny of the cabin, looked a little wistfully at Boyne, and then turned and sauntered away after the delinquent.

Boyne returned to the deck and his book; but though the latter interested him, it did not prevent his keeping watch, out of the tail of his eye, on the empty chair which bore Mrs. Wheater’s name. His curiosity to see her had grown immensely since his encounter with her son and daughter — in the latter of whom he discovered, as the past grew clearer to him, a likeness to her mother at once close and remote. Joyce Mervin — yes, she had had those same poppy~red lips in a face of translucent pallor, and that slow skilful way of manoeuvring her big eyes; but her daughter seemed made of a finer frailer stuff, as if a good deal of Mrs. Wheater’s substance had been left out of her, and a drop of some rarer essence added. “Perhaps it’s because the child is only half a person — there was always too much of her mother,” Boyne thought, remembering Joyce Mervin as being rather aimlessly abundant. “In such cases, it’s probably enough to be a twin,” he decided.

But how puzzling it all was! Terry was much less like Cliffe Wheater than his twin was like their mother. There too — even more so in the boy’s case — quality seemed to have replaced quantity. Boyne felt, he hardly knew why, that something obvious and almost vulgar might lurk under Blanca’s fastidiousness; but her brother could never be anything but distinguished. What a pity such a charming lad should look so ill!

Suddenly, from the forward suite, the young lady with the baby emerged. She had her sleepy cherub by the hand and was guiding him with motherly care along the deck. She sank into the chair next to Boyne’s, pulled the baby up on her knee, and signalled to a steward to draw a rug over her feet. Then she leaned back with a sigh of satisfaction.

“This is something like, eh, Chip?” she said, in her gay fluty voice.

Chip laughed a genial well-fed laugh and fingered the brim of her hat appreciatively. It was evident that the two had the very highest opinion of each other.

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