The Children, by Edith Wharton

XII

Before mounting to Mrs. Sellars’s the next morning Boyne went down to the Pension Rosenglüh to gather what farther details he could of the strange flight of the little Wheaters.

As he reached the pension gate he was met by Miss Scope, looking more than commonly gaunt and ravaged, but as brightly resolute as her fellow-conspirator. Her gray cotton glove enfolded Boyne’s hand in an unflinching grasp, and she exclaimed at once how providential it was that they should have caught him still at Cortina. She added that she had been on the look-out for him, as both Judith and Terry were still asleep, and she was sure he’d agree that they had better not be disturbed, after all they’d been through; especially as Terry was still feverish. The other children, he gathered, had already breakfasted, and been shepherded out by Nanny and the nursemaid to the downs above the valley; and meanwhile perhaps Mr. Boyne would come in and have a chat.

The word seemed light for the heavy news he was prepared to hear; but he suspected that Miss Scope, like the Witch of Atlas, was used to racing on the platforms of the wind, and laughed to hear the fire-balls roar behind. At any rate, her sturdy composure restored his own balance, and made him glad of the opportunity to hear her version of the adventure before his next encounter with Judith.

Miss Scope was composed, as she always was — he was soon to learn — in real emergencies. She had been through so many that they seemed to her as natural and inevitable as thunder-storms or chicken-pox — as troublesome, but no more to be fussed about. Nevertheless, she did not underrate the gravity of the situation: to do so, he suspected, would have robbed it of its savour. There had been cataclysms before — times when Judy had threatened to go off and disappear with all the children — but till now she had never even attempted to put her threats into execution. “And now she’s carried it off with a master hand,” Miss Scope declared in a tone of grim triumph.

But carried it where to? That was the question Boyne could not help putting. He was sure Judith had been masterly — but where was it all going to lead? Had any of them taken that into account, he asked?

Well, Miss Scope had to own that their departure had been too precipitate for much taking into account. It had to be then or never — she had seen that as clearly as Judy and Terry. The fact that Terry was with them showed how desperate the situation was —

“Desperate? Really desperate?”

“Oh, Mr. Boyne! If you’d been through it twice before, as my poor children have. . .”

Listening to the details of her story, he agreed that it must indeed have been awful, and ended by declaring that he did not question Judith’s reasons; but now that the first step in the mutiny was taken, how did Miss Scope imagine that they were going to keep it up? In short, what did they mean to do when they were found out?

“I think Judith counts very much on your intervention. That’s the reason she was so anxious to find you still here. And of course she hopes there’ll be time — time to consider, to choose a course of action. She believes it will be some days before we’re found out, as you put it. I daresay she’s told you that she left a letter . . . Mr. Boyne,” said Miss Scope, interrupting herself with her sternest accent, “I hope you don’t think that, in ordinary circumstances, I should ever condone the least deceit. The children will tell you that on that point I’m inexorable. But these were not ordinary circumstances.” She cleared her throat, and brought out: “Judith said in the letter that we’d sailed for America. She thinks her father will hurry there to find them, and in that way we shall gain a little time, for the steamer they’re supposed to be on is not due in New York for ten days.”

The plan seemed puerile, even for so immature a mind as Judith’s; but Boyne did not raise that point. He merely said: “I hope so. But meanwhile what are you all going to live on? It costs something to feed such an army.”

Miss Scope’s countenance turned from sallow to white. Her eyes forsook his face, as they did when she talked of Terry, and she brought out, hesitatingly: “Judith, I understand, has means. . .”

“Poor woman!” Boyne thought. “I believe she’s plumped in all her savings. — I see,” he said. He was filled with a sudden loathing of all the wasteful luxury, the vanity and selfishness and greed, out of which this poor pale flower of compassion had sprung. “I see,” he repeated. He stood up, and held out his hand. “You’re their real mother. If there’s anything on earth I can do — to the limit of my small capacity — .” A tear ran down the furrows of Miss Scope’s averted cheek. He knew it by the hasty dab of her cotton hand. “I know — I know — . Oh, Mr. Boyne, it’s providential, our finding you.”

He pressed her wet glove hard, and assured her that she could count on him. He would go off now, he added, to reflect further on the problem, and come back later, when Judy and Terry were awake.

It was after eleven when he reached the châlet; but luckily no long excursion had been planned for that morning. Mrs. Sellars had told him the night before that she had letters to write, and should not expect him early. When he approached the little house in its clearing of emerald turf he saw her on the balcony, her writing~materials on a table at her elbow. But she was leaning on the rail, looking down the path by which he always came. He waved his hand, and she answered with a welcoming gesture. “Come up — I’m deep in papers,” she called down cheerily.

“I came last night, but your lights were out, and I was afraid of the cook,” he laughed, taking her in his arms as she went to meet him. The day was warm, and she had put on a thin white dress which gave her a springlike look. Her complexion too had a morning freshness, through which the blood ran up to his kiss. “But not afraid of me?” she questioned.

“Of you? I like that! You deserted me; it’s you who ought to be afraid. I’ve come to make a row, you know.”

“You ought to have come to thank me for my tact. I saw you’d run across old friends, and slipped out of the way.”

“I’d run across one young friend — Judith Wheater. When I came back to tell you about it you’d gone.”

Her eyes lit up with curiosity and interest. “Your famous little Judith? Really? Why, you always speak of her as such a child — I shouldn’t have guessed. . .”

“You said yourself last night how young she looked — ”

“Yes; awfully young; but still — grown up.”

“Well, she’s not grown up. She’s a child — a child tremendously to be pitied. I want to tell you all about it. I want your help and your advice. You don’t know what a quandary I’m in.”

She had gone back to her seat on the balcony, and he dropped into the chair beside her. As he spoke her colour flickered up again, and she smiled a little uncertainly. “A quandary — about that child?” The smile faded, and her colour with it. “Martin, you don’t mean . . . you can’t . . .?”

He stared, perplexed, and then burst out laughing. “That the quandary’s MINE— about little Judith? Bless you, what an idea! Why, she’s hardly out of the nursery.” He laughed again, partly to bridge over his surprise and her constraint. It was incredible, what farfetched delusions the most sensible women took up with, at the very moment when one wanted them to look at a question like a man! “This is a very different business,” he went on. “Not in the least sentimental, but merely squalid. The Wheater ménage has gone to smash again, and Judy’s bolted with all the children, to try to prevent their being separated, as they are whenever there’s a new deal.”

Mrs. Sellars sat looking at him with wide eyes and parted lips. The situation was evidently too new to her to be at once intelligible, and she repeated vaguely: “Bolted — bolted from whom?”

“From Joyce and Wheater. Gone clean away, without any warning.” She was again silent, her eyes as it were fixed on this statement, which seemed to carry her no farther toward comprehension.

“But bolted with whom? They can’t have gone away all by themselves?”

“The governess is with them, and the two nurses. In a crisis like this they all stand by Judith. I’ve just been talking with the governess, and she entirely approves. You see, they’ve been through this kind of thing before.”

“Through the running away?”

“No, but through what led up to it. The last time, it appears, Judith told her parents that if they were divorced again she meant to go off with all the children, rather than have them separated from each other as they were before. You see, whenever a smash comes the children are divided up among the ex-parents, and some of them are pretty rotten, I imagine — a blackmailing Italian prince, a rather notorious movie star, and Lord knows who besides. Not to speak of the new elements to be introduced, if Joyce and Wheater both marry again, as I’ve no doubt they will, in no time.”

Mrs. Sellars, her chin resting on her hand, sat listening in a silence still visibly compounded of bewilderment and disgust. For a minute after Boyne had ceased speaking she did not move or look up. At last she said, in a low voice: “It’s all too vile for belief.”

“Exactly,” he agreed. “And it’s all true.”

“The horrors those children must know about — ”

“It’s to save them from more horrors that Judith has carried them away.”

“I see — I see. Poor child!” Her face melted into pity. “Just at first it was all too new to me. But now I’m beginning to understand. And I suppose she came here hoping you would help her?”

“I suppose she didn’t have much time to think or choose, but vaguely remembered I was here, as her letter showed.”

“But the money? Where in the world did they get the money? You can’t transport a nursery-full of children from one place to another without paying for it.”

Boyne hesitated a moment; but he felt he must not betray Miss Scope, and merely answered that he hadn’t had time to go into all that yet, but supposed that in an easy-going extravagant household like the Wheaters’ there were always some funds available, the more so as preparations were already being made to send the children off to the mountains.

“Well, it’s all hideous and touching and crazy. Where are the poor little things — at your hotel?” Mrs. Sellars had gone indoors, and was picking up her hat and sunshade. “I should like you to take me down at once to see them.”

Boyne was touched by the suggestion, but secretly alarmed at what might happen if Mrs. Sellars were exposed unprepared to the simultaneous assault of all the little Wheaters. He explained that Judith had taken her flock to an inexpensive pension in the village, and that the younger children, when he had called there, were already away on the downs, and Judith and Terry still sleeping off their emotions. Should he go down again, he asked, and bring Judith back alone to the châlet? “You’d better see her first without the others. You might find the seven of them rather overwhelming.”

Seven? Mrs. Sellars confessed she hadn’t realised that there were actually seven. She agreed that it would be perhaps better that she should first see Judith without her brothers and sisters, and proposed that Boyne should invite her to come back with him to the châlet to lunch. “If you think she won’t be too frightened of a strange old woman?” The idea of Judith’s being frightened of anything or anybody amused Boyne, but he thought it charming of Mrs. Sellars to suggest it, and was glad, after all, that she was there to support and advise him. When she had had a quiet talk with Judith he felt sure she would be on the children’s side; and perhaps her practical vision might penetrate farther than his into the riddle of what was to be done for them.

“If only,” he said to himself, “Judith doesn’t begin by saying something that will startle her”; and he thought of warning Mrs. Sellars not to expect a too great ingenuousness in his young friend. Then he reflected that such a warning might unconsciously prejudice her against the girl, and decided that it would be wiser to trust to Judith’s natural charm to overcome anything odd in her conversation. If there were hints to be given, he concluded, there would be less risk in giving them to Judith.

But the utility of giving hints in that quarter became equally dubious at first sight of her. Refreshed and radiant after her night’s rest, and unusually pretty in her light linen frock, and a spreading hat with a rosy lining, Judith received him at the gate of the pension in an embrace which sent her hat flying among the currant-bushes, and exposed her rumpled head and laughing eyes to his close inspection. “You look like a pansy this morning,” he said, struck by the resemblance of her short pointed oval and velvet-brown eyes to the eager inquisitive face of the mountain flower. But Judith was no gardener, and rejected the comparison with a grimace. “How horrid of you! Nasty wired things in wreaths at funerals! I don’t feel a bit as if I were at a funeral. It’s so jolly to be here, and to have found you. You’ve come to say you’ll lunch with us, haven’t you? The children will be mad with joy. It was partly because I promised them we’d find you here that they agreed to come. Blanca and Zinnie unsettled them at first — they’re always afraid of missing some excitement if they have a row with mother. But I told them we’d have lots more excitement with you.” She was hanging on his arm, and drawing him up the path to the house.

“I must tell the landlady you’re coming to lunch. Scopy’s upstairs with Terry, and she told me to be sure not to forget, so that the cook could give us something extra.” By this time they were in the little sitting-room, which smelt of varnish and dried edelweiss, and had a stuffed eagle perched above the stove. Judith sat down on the slippery sofa, and dragged Boyne to a seat at her side. “And first, I was to ask you what pudding you’d particularly like.”

“Oh, bless you, any pudding. But about lunch — ”

She drew herself up, and tossed him an arch smile. “Or perhaps you’re here incog., with a lady, and would rather not come? I told Scopy I shouldn’t wonder — ”

“Nonsense, Judith; how absurd — ”

“Why absurd? Why shouldn’t you be here with a lady? Vous êtes encore très bien, mon cher. . .” She drew her deep lids half shut, and slanted an insinuating glance at him.

“Don’t talk like a manicure, child. As a matter of fact, I have an old friend here who wants very much to see you, and who kindly suggested — ”

“An old lady-friend?”

“Yes.”

“As old as Scopy?”

“No; probably not as old as your mother, even. I only meant — ”

“But if she’s younger than mother, how can you say she’s old? Is she prettier, too?” Judith broke in searchingly.

“I don’t know, really; I haven’t thought — ”

“Well, I don’t believe she’s as well-dressed. Unless, perhaps, you think Joyce’s clothes are sometimes just a shade TOO— ”

“I haven’t thought about that either. What I mean by ‘old’ is that Mrs. Sellars and I have been friends for years. She’s living in a châlet on the hill above the hotels; and she wants me to bring you up to lunch with her today.”

“Me — only me?” Judith questioned, visibly surprised.

Boyne smiled. “Well, my dear, I’m sure she would have liked to invite you all, Chip included; but her house is tiny and couldn’t possibly take in the whole party. So, to avoid invidious distinctions, why not come by yourself and make her acquaintance? I want you awfully to know her, for no one can give you better advice than she can.”

Judith drew herself up stiffly and her face became a blank. “I don’t want anybody’s advice but yours, Martin. But of course I’ll go if you want me to.”

“It’s not a question of what I want. But you may be sure if my advice is any good it will be because I’ve consulted Mrs. Sellars. Two’s not too many to get you out of this predicament. I sometimes think you don’t realise what an awful row you’re all in for.”

“If she’s not as old as mother, and you’ve never noticed how she’s dressed, you must be in love with her,” Judith went on, as if his last words had not made the least impression on her.

“I don’t see what difference it makes if I am or not,” he retorted, beginning to lose his temper. “The point is that she happens to be one of the kindest and most sensible women I know — ”

“That’s what men always think,” said Judith thoughtfully. She drew back to study him again through half-closed lids. “It’s a wonderful thing to be in love,” she murmured; and then continued with a teasing smile: “Blanca’s ever so much sharper than I am. She said: ‘Why’s Martin in such an awful hurry to rush away from Venice, if he isn’t slipping off on the quiet to meet a friend?’ I suppose,” she added, with a fall in her voice, and a corresponding droop of the lips, “it was awfully stupid of me to blunder in on you like this, and you’re racking your brains to think how you can get rid of us all, and keep out of a row with father and mother.”

Boyne, half-exasperated and half-touched, as he so often was in his talks with her, and especially when he knew she wished to give him pain, laid his hand reproachfully on hers. “Look here, Judith, I could shake you when you talk such drivel. The only thing I’m racking my brains about is how to help you to get what you want. To keep you all together, as you are now, and yet not let your father and mother think that I’ve had anything to do with this performance. You’re quite right; I do want to stay on good terms with them, because if I do I may succeed in persuading them that, whatever happens, they’ve no right to separate you children again. If I do that I shall have done my best for you. But I don’t see my way to it yet, and that’s why I want you to come and make friends with Mrs. Sellars.”

To his surprise she listened in an attentive silence, and, when he had ended, lifted to his the face of an obedient child. “Of course I’ll do what you want, Martin. But don’t you think your friend would perhaps understand better if I had Nanny bring up Chip to see her after lunch?”

“Bless you — of course she would,” he agreed enthusiastically; and she thereupon proposed that before they started he should come upstairs and see Terry.

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