The Children, by Edith Wharton

X

“DARLING MARTIN,

“It’s lovely here and very warm. Weve been baithing at the Lido and weve been out on the yaht again. Buondelmontes wife the lion taimer is dead and he has maried a rich American airess and Beechy and Bun are very much exited they think theyle get lots of presents now like Zinnie got from her mother and the one I was to get but Blanca took it, but I do like yours a hundred times better Martin dear, because you gave it to me and besides its much more orriginal.

“Ime worried because Buondelmonte mite want Bun back now hese rich and it would kill Beechy if Bun went away but I made him sware again on Scopys book he wont go whatever hapens.

“Mother and father had a grate big row because Mother wanted Zinnia and Lord Rench invited on the yatch and father said he woudnt it was too low, so she said why did he mind when she didnt. She wants to know the Duke of Mendip whose with them and Zinnia invites Gerald every day to lunch and dine and that makes Joyce fureaous. You will say I ought not to tell you this dear Martin then what can I do if there is a Row between them about Gerald Terry will loose his tutor and its too bad so I want to get away with the children as quick as we can.

“Terry said he must see this before I send it to you because I spell so badly but I wont let him because hed stop me sending it.

“Please Martin dear I do imploar you write and tell father to send us off quickly. Terry’s temprature has gone up and Ime worried about everything. How I wish you were here then theyde do what you say.

“Your Judith who misses you.”

“P.S. Please dont tell the Wheaters that Ive written.”

Boyne’s first thought, as he put the letter down, was that he was glad it had come after what had happened that very evening on the balcony. There had happened, simply, that the barriers created by a long habit of reticence had fallen, and he had taken Rose Sellars into his arms. It was a quiet embrace, the hushed surface of something deep and still. She had not spoken; he thanked his gods for that. Almost any word might have marred the moment, tied a tag to it, and fitted it with others into some dusty pigeon-hole of memory. She had known how to be different — and that was exquisite. Their quiet communion had silently flowered, and she had let it. There was neither haste nor reluctance in her, but an acquiescence so complete that what was deepest in both of them had flowed together through their hands and lips.

“It will be so much easier now to consult her — she’ll understand so much better.”

He didn’t quite know why he felt that; perhaps because the merging of their two selves seemed to include every claim that others could have on either of them. Only yesterday he might have felt a doubt as to how Mrs. Sellars would view the Wheater problem, what she could possibly have in common with any of the Wheaters, or their world; now it was enough that she had him in common, and must share the burden because it was his.

He went over Judith’s letter again slowly, imagining how Mrs. Sellars’s beautiful eyes would deepen as she read it. The very spelling was enough to wring her heart. He would take the letter to her the next day . . . But the next day was here already. He pushed back his window, and leaned out. In the cold colourless air a few stars were slowly whitening, while behind the blackness of the hillside facing him the interstellar pallor flowed imperceptibly into morning gold. His happiness, he thought, was like that passing of colourless radiance into glow. It was joy enough to lean there and watch the transmutation. Was it a sign of middle-age, he wondered, to take beatitude so quietly? Well, Rose, for all her buoyancy, was middle-aged too. Then he remembered their kiss, and laughed the word away as the sun rushed up over the mountains.

All that day there was too much to do and to say; there were too many plans to make; too many memories to retrace. Boyne did not forget Judith Wheater’s letter; her problem lay like a vague oppression in the background of his thoughts; but he found no way of fitting it into the new pattern of his life. Just yet —

It was decided that he and Mrs. Sellars should linger on in the mountains for another month — a month of mighty rambles, long hours of summer sunlight, and nights illuminated by a waxing moon. After that, Boyne’s idea had been that they should push on at once to Paris, and there be married as quickly as legal formalities allowed. It was at this hint of an immediate marriage that he first noticed, in Mrs. Sellars, the recoil of the orderly deliberate woman whose life has been too vacant for hurry, too hopeless for impatience. Theoretically, she told him with a smile, she hated delay and fuss as much as he did — and how could he question her eagerness to begin their new life? But practically, she reminded him, there were difficulties, there might even be obstacles. Oh, not real ones, of course! She laughed that away, remarking with a happy blush that she was of age, and her own mistress. (“Well, then —?” he interjected.) Well, there were people who had to be considered; who might be offended by too great haste: her husband’s family, for instance. She had never hit it off with them particularly well, as Boyne knew; but that was the very reason, she insisted, why she must do nothing that might give them cause . . . (“Cause for what?”) Well, to say unpleasant things. She couldn’t possibly marry within a year of her husband’s death without seriously offending them — and latterly, she had to admit, they had been very decent, especially about straightening out Charles’s will, which had been difficult to interpret, Mr. Dobree said.

“Mr. Dobree?”

“He’s been such a friend to me through everything, you know,” she reminded him, a shade reproachfully; and he remembered then that Mr. Dobree was the New York lawyer who had unravelled, as much as possible to her advantage, the tangle of Charles Sellars’s will — the will of a snubbed secretive man whose only vindictiveness had been posthumous. Mr. Dobree had figured a good deal of late in Mrs. Sellars’s letters, and she had given Boyne to understand that it was he who had brought the Sellars family to terms about the will. Boyne vaguely remembered him as a shy self-important man with dark-gray clothes that were always too new and too well-cut — the kind of man whose Christian name one never knew, but had to look up in the “Social Register,” and then was amused to find it was Jason or Junius, only to forget it again at once — so fatally did Mr. Dobree tend always to become Mr. Dobree once more. A man, in short, who would have been called common in the New York of Boyne’s youth, but now figured as “a gentleman of the old school,” and conscientiously lived, and dressed, up to the character. Boyne suspected him of being in love with Mrs. Sellars, and Mrs. Sellars of feeling, though she could not return the sentiment, that it was not ungratifying to have inspired it. But Boyne’s mind lingered on Mr. Dobree only long enough to smile at him as the rejected suitor, and then came back to his own grievances.

“You don’t mean to say you expect me to wait a whole year from now?”

She laughed again. “You goose. A year from Charles’s death. It’s only seven months since he died.”

“What of that? You were notoriously unhappy —

“Oh, NOTORIOUSLY— ”

He met her protest with a smile. “I admit the term is inappropriate. But I don’t suppose anybody thinks your marriage was unmitigated bliss.”

“Don’t you see, dear? That’s the very reason.”

“Oh, hang reasons — especially unreasonable ones! Why have you got to be unhappy now because you were unhappy then?”

“I’m not unhappy now. I don’t think I could be, ever again, if I tried.”

“Dear!” he rejoined. She excelled at saying nice things like that (and was aware of it); but her doing so now was like putting kickshaws before a hungry man. “It’s awfully sweet of you,” he continued; “but I shall be miserable if you insist on things dragging on for another five months. To begin with, I’m naturally anxious to get home and settle my plans. I want some sort of a job as soon as I can get it; and I want YOU,” he concluded, putting his arm about her.

Obviously, what struck her first in this appeal was not his allusion to wanting her but to the need of settling his plans. All her idle married years, he knew, had been packed with settling things, adjusting things, adapting things, disguising things. She did see his point, she agreed at once, and she wanted as much as he did to fix a date; but why shouldn’t it be a later one? There were her own aunts too, who had always been so kind. Aunt Julia, in particular, would be as horrified as the Sellarses at her marrying before her year of mourning was over; and she particularly wanted to consider Aunt Julia.

“Why do you particularly want to consider Aunt Julia? I seem to remember her as a peculiarly stupid old lady.”

“Yes, dear,” she agreed. “But it’s just because she IS peculiarly stupid — ”

“If you call that a sufficient reason, we shall never get married. In a family as large as yours there’ll always be somebody stupid left to consider.”

“Thanks for your estimate of my family. But it’s not the only reason.” Her colour rose a little. “You see, I’m supposed to be Aunt Julia’s heir. I found it out because, as it happens, Mr. Dobree drew up her will; and the doctors say any one of these attacks of gout — ”

“Oh — .”

He couldn’t keep the disenchanted note out of his voice. The announcement acted like a cold douche. It ought, in reason, to have sent a pleasant glow through him, for he knew that, in spite of Mr. Dobree’s efforts, Mrs. Sellars had been left with unexpectedly small means, and the earnings of his own twenty years of hard work in hard climates had been partly lost in unlucky investments. The kind of post he meant to try for in New York — as consulting engineer to some large firm of contractors — was not likely to bring in as much as his big jobs in the past; and the appearance of a gouty aunt with benevolent testamentary designs ought to have been an unmixed satisfaction. But trimming his course to suit the whims of rich relations had never been his way — perhaps because he had never had any rich relations. Anyhow, he was not going to be dictated to by his wife’s; and it gave him a feeling of manliness to tell her so.

“Of course, if it’s a case of choosing between Aunt Julia and me — ” he began severely.

She raised her eyebrows with that soft mockery he enjoyed so much when it was not turned against himself. “In that case, dear, I should almost certainly choose you.”

“Well, then, pack up, and let’s go straight off to Paris and get married.”

“Martin, you ought to understand. I can’t be married before my year of mourning’s out. For my own sake I can’t; and for yours.”

“Damn mine!”

“Very well; I have my personal reasons that I must stick to even if I can’t make you understand them.” Her eyes filled, and she looked incredibly young and wistful. “I don’t suppose I ought to expect you to,” she added.

“You ought to expect me to understand anything that’s even remotely reasonable.”

“I had hoped so.”

“Oh, dash it — ” he began; and then broke off. With a secret dismay he felt their lovers’ talk degenerating for the first time into a sort of domestic squabble; if indeed so ungraceful a term could be applied to anything as sweetly resilient as Rose’s way of gaining her end. Was marriage always like that? Was the haven Boyne had finally made to be only a stagnant backwater, like other people’s? Or was it because he had been wandering and homeless for so long that the least restraint chafed him, and arguments based on social considerations made him fume? He was certainly in no position to quarrel with Mrs. Sellars for wishing to better her fortunes, and the discussion ended by his lifting her hand to his lips and saying: “You know I want only what you want.” The coward’s way out — and he knew it. But since he had parted with the substance of his independence, why cling to the form? He felt her eyes following his inner debate, and knew that the sweetness of her smile was distilled out of satisfaction at his defeat. “Damn it,” he thought, “what cannibals marriage makes of people.” He suddenly felt as if they were already married — as if they had been married a long time. . .

During their first fortnight not a cloud had shadowed their comradeship; but now that love and marriage had intervened the cloud was there, no bigger than the Scriptural one, but menacing as that proverbial vapour. She was kinder than ever because she had gained her point; and he knew it was because she had gained her point. But was it not his fault if he had begun thus early to distinguish among her different qualities as if they belonged to different vintage years, and to speculate whether the quality of her friendship might not prove more exquisite than her love could ever be? He was willing to assume the blame, since the joy of holding her fast, of plunging into her enchanted eyes, and finding his own enchantment there, was still stronger than any disappointment. If love couldn’t be friendship too, as he had once dreamed it might, the only thing to do was to make the most of what it was. . .

Judith Wheater’s letter had been for over a week in Boyne’s pocket when he pulled it out, crumpled and smelling of tobacco.

He and Mrs. Sellars were reclining at ease on a high red ledge of rock, with a view plunging down by pine-clad precipices, pastures and forests to illimitable distances of blue Dolomite. The air sang with light, the smell of crushed herbs rose like incense, and the hearts of the lovers were glad with sun and wind, and the glow of a long climb followed by such food as only a rucksack can provide.

“And now for a pipe,” Boyne said, in sleepy beatitude, stretching himself out on the turf at Mrs. Sellars’s elbow. He fumbled for his tobacco pouch, and drew out with it the forgotten letter.

“Oh, dash it — ”

“What?”

“Poor little thing! I forgot this; I meant to show it to you days ago.”

“Who’s the poor little thing?”

For a moment he wavered. His old dread of her misunderstanding returned; and he felt he could not bear to have her misunderstand that letter. What was the use of showing it, after all? But she was holding out her hand, and he had no alternative. She raised herself on her elbow, and bent her lustrous head above the page. From where he lay he watched her profile, and the subtle curves of the line from ear to throat. “How lovely she still is,” he thought.

She read attentively, frowning a little in the attempt to decipher Judith’s spelling, and her mouth melting into amusement or compassion. Then she handed back the letter. “I suppose it’s from the little Wheater girl you wrote about? Poor little thing indeed! It’s too dreadful. I didn’t know there really WERE such people. But who are the Wheaters she speaks of in the postscript, who are not to be told?”

Boyne replied that those were her parents.

“Her parents? Why does she speak of them in that way?”

He explained that in the Wheater circles it was the custom among the children to do so, the cross-tangle of divorces having usually given them so many parents that it was more convenient to differentiate the latter by their surnames.

“Oh, Martin, it’s too horrible! Are you serious? Did the poor child really tell you that?”

“The governess did — as a matter of course.”

She made a little grimace. “The sort of governesses they must have, in a world where the parents are like that!”

“Well, this particular one is a regular old Puritan brick. She and Judith keep the whole show together.” And he told her about the juvenile oath on Scopy’s “Cyclopædia of Nursery Remedies.”

“She doesn’t appear to have grounded her pupils very thoroughly in spelling,” Mrs. Sellars commented; but her eyes were soft, and she took the letter back, and began to read it over again.

“There’s a lot I don’t begin to understand. Who are these people that Mrs. Wheater wants to invite on the yacht because they know a Duke, and Mr. Wheater won’t because it’s too low?”

“They’re Lord and Lady Wrench. Wasn’t there a lot in the papers a month or two ago about Lord Wrench’s marrying a movie star? He has a racing-stable; I believe he’s very rich. Her name was Zinnia Lacrosse.”

“A perfect name. But why, in the Wheater world, are movie stars regarded as too low? Too low for what — or for whom?” Her mouth narrowed disdainfully on the question.

“Well, this one happens to have been Wheater’s wife — for a time.”

“His WIFE?”

“Not for long, though. They’ve been divorced for much longer than they were married. So I suppose Mrs. Wheater doesn’t see the use of making a retrospective fuss about it.”

“Practical woman! And who’s the Gerald that she and the other lady are fighting for?”

“Oh, he’s the boy’s tutor; Terry’s tutor. Or was to have been. I’m afraid he’s a rotter too. But Terry, poor chap, is the best fellow you ever saw. I back him and Judith and Scopy to keep the ship on her course, whatever happens. If only Terry’s health holds out.”

“And they get him another tutor.”

“As things go, he’s lucky if he has any.”

Mrs. Sellars again sighed out her contempt and amazement, and let the letter fall. For a long time she sat without moving, her chin on her hand, looking out over the great billowing landscape which rolled away at their feet as if driven on an invisible gale. When she turned to Boyne he saw that her eyes were full of a puzzled sadness. “Don’t the Wheaters CARE in the least about their children?”

In old days, in their melancholy inconclusive talks, she had often confessed her grief at being childless; and now he heard in her voice the lonely woman’s indignation at the unworthiness of those who had been given what she was denied. “Don’t they CARE?” she repeated.

“Oddly enough, I believe they do. I’m afraid that’s going to be our difficulty. Why should they have taken on the steps if they hadn’t cared? They certainly seem very fond of the children, whenever they’re with them. But it’s one thing to be fond of children, and another to know how to look after them. My impression is that they realised their incapacity long ago, and that’s why they dumped the whole problem on Judy.”

“Long ago? But how old is Judy? This is the writing of a child of ten.”

“She’s had no time to learn any other, with six children to look after. But I suppose she’s fifteen or sixteen.”

“Fifteen or sixteen!” Mrs. Sellars gave a little sigh. “Young enough to be my daughter.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to say: “I wish she had been!” But he had an idea it might sound queerly, and instead he stretched out his hand and took back the letter. The gesture seemed to rouse her to a practical view of the question. “What are you going to do about it, dearest?”

“That’s what I want you to tell me.”

This stimulated her to action, as he had known it would. He was glad that he had consulted her: she had been full of sympathy, and might now be of good counsel. How stupid it was ever to mistrust her!

“Of course you must write to her father.”

“Well — perhaps. But doing that won’t get us much forrarder.”

“Not if you appeal to him — point out that the children oughtn’t to be kept in Venice any longer? Didn’t you say he knew the climate was bad for the boy?”

“Yes; and Wheater will respond at once — in words! He’ll say: ‘Damn it, Joyce, Boyne’s right. What are the children doing here? We’ll pack them off to the Engadine to-morrow.’ Then he’ll cram my letter into his pocket, and no one will ever see it again, except the valet when he brushes his coat.”

“But the mother — Joyce, or whatever her name is? If he tells HER— ”

“Well, there’s the hitch.”

“What hitch?”

“Supposing she wants to keep the children in Venice on account of Gerald?”

“Gerald? Oh, the tutor! Oh, Martin — ” A shiver of disgust ran over her. “And you dare to tell me she’s fond of her children!”

“So she is; awfully fond. But everything rushes past her in a whirl. Life’s a perpetual film to those people. You can’t get up out of your seat in the audience and change the current of a film.”

“What CAN you do about it?”

He lay back on the grass, frowning up into the heavens. “Can’t think. Unless I were to drop down to Venice for a day or two, and try talking to them.” To his surprise, he found that the idea opened out before him rather pleasantly. “Writing to that kind of people’s never any sort of good,” he concluded.

Mrs. Sellars was sitting erect beside him, her eyes bent on his. They had darkened a little, and the delicate bend of her lips narrowed as it had when she asked what there could be in the Wheater world that movie stars were too low for.

“Go back to Venice?” He felt the edge of resistance in her voice. “I don’t see of what use that would be. It’s a good deal to ask you to take that stifling journey again. And if you don’t know what to write, how would you know any better what to say?”

“Perhaps I shouldn’t. But at any rate I could feel my way. And I might comfort Judith a little.”

“Poor child! I wish you could.” She was all sweetness again. “But I should try writing first. Don’t you think so? Write to her too, of course. Whatever you decide, you’d better begin by feeling your way. It’s always awkward to interfere in family matters, and if you turned up again suddenly the Wheaters might think it rather odd.”

He was inclined to tell her that nothing would seem odd to the Wheaters except what seemed inevitable and fore-ordained to her. But he felt an irritated weariness of the whole subject. “I daresay you’re right,” he agreed, pocketing his pipe and getting to his feet. It was not his idea of a holiday that it should be interfered with by other people’s bothers, and he put Judith’s letter back into his pocket with an impatient thrust. After all, what business was it of his? He would write the child a nice letter, of course; but Rose was right — the idea of going down to Venice was absurd. Besides, Judith’s letter was more than a week old, and ten to one the party had scattered by this time, and the children were safe somewhere in the mountains. “Poor little thing, she’s always rather overwrought, and very likely she just had a passing panic when she wrote. Hang it, I wish she hadn’t written,” he concluded, relieved to find a distant object for his irritation.

Arm in arm, he and his love wandered down the mountain.

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