The Children, by Edith Wharton

XI

“Of course I’ve written to her — I wrote last night,” Boyne assured Mrs. Sellars the next evening. He was conscious of a vague annoyance at being called to account in the matter — as if he couldn’t deal with his own correspondence without such reminders. But Mrs. Sellars’s next word disarmed him. “I’m so glad, dear. I should have hated to feel that our being so happy here had made you neglect your little friend.”

That was generous, he thought — and like her. He adored her when she said things like that. It proved that, in spite of her little air of staidness, she was essentially human and comprehending. He had persuaded her that night — for fun, for a change, after her months of seclusion — to come down and dine with him, not at his own modest hotel, but at the towering “Palace” among the pines below the châlet, where he thought the crowd and gaiety of the big restaurant might amuse her, and would at any rate make their evenings at the châlet more delicious by contrast.

They had finished dining, and were seated over their coffee in a corner of the big panelled hall to which the other diners were slowly drifting back. Boyne, seeing Mrs. Sellars, for the first time since his arrival, in the company of women as graceful and well-dressed as herself, noted with satisfaction that not one of them had exactly her quality. But the groups about the other tables were amusing to study and speculate about, and he sat listening to her concise and faintly ironic comments with an enjoyment mellowed by the flavour of the excellent cigar he had acquired from the head-waiter.

“The girl in peach-colour, over there by the column — lovely, isn’t she? Only one has seen her a thousand times, in all the ‘Vogues’ and ‘Tatlers.’ Oh, Martin, won’t it be too awful if beauty ends by being standardised too?”

Boyne rather thought it had been already, in the new generation, and secretly reflected that Mrs. Sellars’s deepest attraction lay in her belonging to a day when women still wore their charm with a difference.

“I’m sure if I owned one of these new beauties I shouldn’t always be able to pick her out in a crowd,” he agreed.

She laughed her satisfaction, and then, sweeping the hall with lifted eye-glass: “That one you would. . .”

“A new beauty? Where?”

“Beauty — no. Hardly pretty . . . but different. The girl who’s just come in. Where’s she vanished to? Oh, she’s speaking to the porter. Now she’s looking this way — but you can’t see her from where you’re sitting. She’s hardly more than a child; but the face is interesting.”

He barely caught the last words. The porter had come up with a message. “Young lady asking for you, sir.” Boyne got to his feet, staring in the direction indicated. He had not been mistaken. It was Judith Wheater who stood there, frail and straight in her scant travelling dress, her hat pulled down over her anxious eyes, so small and dun-coloured that she was hardly visible among those showy bare-armed women. Yet Mrs. Sellars had picked her out at once! Yes, there was something undeniably “different”; just as there was about Mrs. Sellars herself. But this was no time for such considerations. Where on earth had the child come from, and what on earth had brought her?

“Wait a minute, will you? It’s some one I know.” He followed the porter between the tables to where Judith stood in the shadow of the stairway.

“Child! Where in the world have you dropped from?”

“Oh, Martin, Martin! I was so afraid you’d gone!”

He caught her by both hands, and she lifted a drawn little face to his. Well, why not? He had kissed her goodbye in Venice; now he touched his lips to her cheek. “Judy, how in the world did you get here? Have the heads of the clan come too?”

“Oh, Martin, Martin!” She kept fast hold of him, and he felt that she was trembling. She paid no attention to his question, but turned and glanced about her. “Isn’t there a writing-room somewhere that we could go to? There’s never anybody in them after dinner.”

He guided her, still clinging to him, to one of the handsomely appointed rooms opening off the corridor beyond the hall. As she had predicted, its desks were deserted, its divans unoccupied. She dropped down by Boyne, and threw her arms about his neck.

“Oh, Martin, say you’re glad! I must hear you say it!”

“Glad, child? Of course I’m glad.” Very gently he released himself. “But you look dead-beat, Judy. What’s the matter? Has anything gone wrong? Are your people here?”

She drew back a little and turned full on him her most undaunted face. “If you mean father and mother, they’re in Venice. They don’t know we’re here. You mustn’t be angry, Martin: we’ve run away.”

“Run away? Who’s run away?”

“All of us; with Scopy and Nanny. I always said we’d have to, some day. Scopy and Terry and I managed it. We’re at the Pension Rosenglüh, down the hill. Father and mother will never guess we’re here. They think we’ve gone to America on the Cunarder that touched at Venice yesterday. I left a letter to say we had. Terry was splendid; he invented it all. We hired motors at Padua to come here. But I’m afraid he’s dreadfully done up. This air will put him right though, won’t it?” She poured it all out in the same tone of eager but impartial narrative, as if no one statement in her tale were more surprising or important than the others — except, of course, the matter of Terry’s health. “The air here is something wonderful, Martin, isn’t it?” she pleaded; and he found himself answering with conviction: “There’s simply nothing like it.”

Her face instantly grew less agitated. “I knew I was right to come,” she sighed in a tired voice; and he felt as if she were indeed an overwrought child, and the next moment might fall asleep on his shoulder.

“Judy, you’re dreadfully done up yourself, and you look famished. It’s after ten. Have you had anything to eat since you got here?”

“I don’t believe I have. There wasn’t time. I had to see the children settled first, and then make sure you were here.”

“Of course I’m here. But before we do any more talking you’ve got to be fed.”

“Well, it would be nice to have a bite,” she confessed, recovering her usual confident tone.

“Wait here, and I’ll go and forage.” Boyne walked down the corridor and back into the hall, where people were beginning to group themselves about the bridge-tables. The fact of finding himself there roused him to the recollection of having left Mrs. Sellars alone with his empty coffee-cup. Till that moment he had forgotten her existence. He made his way back to their corner, but it was deserted. In the so-called “salon,” against a background of sham tapestries and gilt wall-lights, other parties were forming about more bridge-tables; but there also there was no sign of Mrs. Sellars.

“Oh, well, she’s got bored and gone home,” he thought, a little irritably. Surely it would have been simpler and more friendly to wait . . . but that was just a part of her ceremoniousness. Probably she had thought it more tactful to disappear. Damn tact! That was all he had to say . . . The important thing now was to give Judy something to eat, and get her back to her pension. After that he would run up to the châlet and explain.

He found a waiter, learned that it was too late to resuscitate dinner, and ordered ham sandwiches and cocktails to be brought at once to the writing-room. On the whole, he found it simplified things to have Mrs. Sellars out of the way. Perhaps there was something to be said for tact after all.

The first sip of her cocktail brought the glow back to Judith’s eyes and lips, the next made her preternaturally vivid and alert. She must eat, he told her — eat at once, before she began to talk; and he pushed his own sandwiches on to her plate, and watched her devouring them, and emptying first her glass and then his. She sparkled at him across its brim, but kept silence, obediently; then she asked for a cigarette, and leaned back at ease against the cushions.

“Well, we’re all here,” she declared with satisfaction.

“Not Chip?” he questioned, incredulous.

“Chip? I should think so! Do you suppose I’d have stirred an inch without Chip?”

“But what the deuce is it all about, child? Have you gone crazy, all of you?”

“Father and mother have. They do, you know. I warned father we’d run away if it happened again.”

“What happened?”

“Why, what I told you would. But I don’t suppose you ever got my letter? I was sure you’d have answered it if you had.” She turned her eyes on him with a look of such unshaken trust that he stammered uncomfortably: “Tell me all about it now.”

“Well, everything went to smash. I knew it would. And then all the old shouting began — about detectives, and lawyers, and mother’s alimony. You know that’s what the children mean when they talk about mother’s old friend Sally Money. They’ve heard about her ever since they can remember. They think mother sends for her whenever anything goes wrong. . .”

“And things have gone thoroughly wrong?”

“Worse than ever. They were dividing us up already. Bun and Beechy back to Buondelmonte, because he’s married a rich American. And Zinnia is ready to take Zinnie. Lord Wrench thinks she’s so awfully funny. And father would have had Chip, of course, and we three older ones would have begun to be sent back and forth again as we used to be, like the shabby old books Scopy used to get out of the lending library at Biarritz. You could keep the stupid ones as long as you liked, but the jolly ones only a week.” She turned her burning face to his. “Now, Martin, didn’t I HAVE to get them all away from it?”

The food and wine had sent such a flame through her that he began to wonder if she had fever, or if it were only the glow of fatigue. He took her hand and it was burning, like her face.

“Child, you’re too tired. All the rest will keep till to-morrow. Put on your hat now, and I’ll take you down the hill to your pension.”

“But, Martin, you’ll promise and swear to see us through?”

“Through everything, bless you. On Scopy’s book. And now come along, or you’ll fall asleep in your tracks.”

In reality he had never seen her so acutely wakeful; but she submitted in silence to being bundled into her hat and coat, and linked her arm confidingly in his as they threaded their way among the bridge-players and out into the great emptiness of the night. The moon hung low above the western peaks, and the village clock below them in the valley chimed out the three quarters after eleven as they walked down the road between blanched fields and sleeping houses. On the edge of the village a few lights still twinkled; but the Pension Rosenglüh, demurely withdrawn behind its white palings, showed a shuttered front to the moon. Boyne opened the garden gate, and started to go up the doorstep ahead of Judith. “Oh, you needn’t ring, Martin. It would wake everybody. I don’t believe the door’s locked. I told Scopy to see that I wasn’t shut out.” She tried the door-knob, which yielded hospitably, and then turned and flung her arms about her companion.

“Martin, darling, I don’t believe I’d ever have dared if I hadn’t known you’d see us through,” she declared with a resounding kiss.

“The devil you wouldn’t!” he murmured; but he pushed her gently in, thinking: “I ought never to have given her that second cocktail.” From the threshold he whispered: “Go upstairs as quietly as you can. I’ll be down in the morning to see how you’re all getting on.” Then he shut the door on her, and slipped out of the gate.

Midnight from the village clock! What would his friend say if he knocked up the châlet at that hour? Half way to the hotel he left the road and branched upward through the fir-wood, by a path he knew. But there were no lights in the châlet.

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