The Children, by Edith Wharton

XIV

“Here — how was I to answer this?” Boyne challenged Mrs. Sellars that evening, pushing the telegram across the dinner-table, where they had lingered over their wood-strawberries and cream.

She had been charming about the Wheater children after their departure; appreciative of Judith — with a shade of reserve — discerning and tender about Terry, and warmly motherly about the others. It was heart-breaking, the whole business . . . and so touching, the way they all turned to Martin for help . . . regarding him apparently as their only friend (how well she understood that!) . . . But what on earth was he going to do about it? What possible issue did he see?

All through dinner they went in and out of the question, till Boyne, feeling that, thanks to Terry, her sympathy was permanently secured, drew the Wheater telegram from his pocket. Mrs. Sellars scrutinised it thoughtfully.

“When did this come?”

“Just now. I found it when I went back to the hotel.”

She sighed. “Of course the Wheaters were bound to find out within twenty-four hours where they’d gone. Poor little conspirators! I wish we could have kept them a day or two longer . . . especially with that boy so overdone. . .”

“Well, perhaps we can.”

Her eyebrows queried: “How?” But instead of taking this up he said: “You haven’t told me yet what I’m to answer.”

Her mobile brow sketched another query. “What CAN you answer? Their father’ll come and fetch them if you don’t send them back.”

“I certainly shan’t do that.”

“Shan’t —? Then what?” Her eyes darkened, and she took up the telegram and studied it again; then she lifted a faintly mocking smile to Boyne. “I confess I’m curious to hear your alternative.”

He considered this with a frown of perplexity. “Why should I answer at all?”

“If you don’t, Wheater has only to telephone to your hotel, and find out if you’re still here, and if you’ve been seen about with a party of children.”

“I shan’t be here. I’ll pack off at once — to Pieve di Cadore, or somewhere.”

“And the children?”

“I’ll take them with me.”

“Are you serious?”

“Absolutely.”

She received this with a little silken laugh. “Then you’re a child yourself, dear. How long do you suppose it will be before you’re run down? You’ll only be making things worse for the children — and for yourself.”

“Hang myself! But for them — .” He frowned and pondered again. “Well, damn it; perhaps. But what have you got to suggest?”

“That you should persuade Judith to take them straight back, of course. I’m awfully sorry for them all — and Terry especially. But as far as I can see there’s nothing else to do.”

He stood up and began to pace the floor. “I’ll never do that.”

She leaned her white arms on the table and her smile followed his impatient pacings. “Then what?”

“I don’t know. Not yet. Anyhow, I’ve got the night to think it over.”

“All the thinking in the world won’t get you any farther.”

He met her smile with a grin which was almost antagonistic. “I’ve got out of one or two tighter places in my life before now.”

“I’ve no doubt you have,” she returned in her tone of slightly humorous admiration.

There they had dropped the discussion, both too experienced in debate not to feel its uselessness. And the next morning had, after all, told Boyne, without any one’s help, what he intended to do. He decided that his first step was to see Judith; and he was down at the pension before the shutters of her room were unlatched. Miss Scope was summoned to the sitting-room, and he told her that Judith must come down immediately to see him.

“Bad news, Mr. Boyne — oh, I hope not?”

“Well, you didn’t seriously suppose it was going to take Wheater much longer than this to run you down, did you?”

Miss Scope whitened. “Are the police after us?”

“The police?” He burst out laughing. “To arrest you for abduction? If they do, it shall be over my dead body.”

She turned to go, and then paused to face him from the threshold. “Whatever Judith did was done with my knowledge and consent — consent; I don’t say approval,” she declared in an emphatic whisper.

“Of course, of course. But send her down at once, will you please?”

A moment later Judith was there, huddled into a scant poppy~coloured dressing-gown, her hair tumbling thickly over childish eyes still misty with sleep. “What is it, Martin? The police?”

He laughed again, this time more impatiently. “Don’t be ridiculous, child. You’re as bad as Scopy. You didn’t really believe your father would have you arrested, did you?”

She met this with another question. “What IS he going to do?”

Boyne handed her the telegram, and she flashed back: “You haven’t answered it?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, we’ll have to start at once, I suppose.”

Boyne stared at her, so unprepared for this prompt abdication that the feeling uppermost in him was a sudden sense of flatness. He had come there ready to put up a fight, valiant if unresourceful, and now —

“Couldn’t we catch a steamer at Trieste?” she continued, apparently pursuing some inward train of thought. The unexpected question jerked him back out of his supineness.

“Trieste? Why Trieste?” He stared at her, puzzled. “Where to?”

“Oh, almost anywhere where they can’t reach us too quickly.” As if unconscious of his presence, she continued to brood upon her problem. “Perhaps, do you know, after all, we’d better go to America. Don’t you think so? There’s Grandma Mervin — Joyce’s mother. We might go to her. And meanwhile you can make the Wheaters think we’re still here, and so they won’t be worried, and we shall have time to slip away.”

In spite of himself, Boyne’s first feeling was one of relief that she meant to keep up the struggle. To begin with, it was more like her; and he had reached the point of wanting her at all costs to be like herself. But he kept his wits sufficiently to reply on a note of sarcasm: “Thank you for the part for which I’m cast. But, my poor child, even if you could get away to America without your parents’ knowing it, such journeys cost money, and I don’t suppose — ”

“Oh, I’ve oceans of money,” she answered with a startling composure.

“What do you call oceans of money? Scopy’s savings?” he taunted her.

Judith flushed up. “She told you?”

“She told me nothing. I guessed.”

Her head drooped for a moment; then she raised it with a confident smile. “Well, of course I shall pay her back. She’s sure of that. She knows I’m a nairess.”

“Heroic woman! But how far do you expect to go on what she’s contributed?”

This also Judith faced with composure. “Not very — poor dear Scopy! But, you see, I’ve got a lot besides.”

“A lot of money?”

She leaned her rumpled head back against the hard sofa, apparently determined to enjoy his bewilderment for a moment longer before enlightening him. “Don’t you call five thousand dollars a lot of money?” she asked.

Boyne gave a whistle of astonishment, and she nodded softly in corroboration.

“You had five thousand dollars — of your own?”

“No. But I knew where father had them.”

Boyne jumped to his feet, and stood glaring down at her incredulously. “You knew —?”

“Don’t gape at me, Martin. If you like to call it so, I stole the money. He always has a lot about, because it bores him so to write cheques.”

“And you helped yourself — to what you wanted?”

“It was awfully easy. I knew where the key was.” She seemed anxious to disclaim any undeserved credit in the matter. “And, anyhow, I knew part of it was intended for our expenses in the Engadine this summer. So it really wasn’t exactly like stealing — was it?”

Boyne sat down again, this time in a chair on the farther side of the room. There seemed to be something almost maleficent in the proximity of the small scarlet figure with rumpled hair and sleep~misted eyes, curled up defiantly in the sofa corner. “You told your father this, I suppose, in the letter you left for him?”

“Told him I’d taken the money?” She laughed. “If I had, there wouldn’t have been much use in taking it — would there?”

He groaned, and sat silent, his eyes fixed on the carefully scrubbed boards of the floor. For a while he concentrated his whole attention on one of their resinous knots; then, with limbs of lead, he slowly stood up again. “Well, I wash my hands of you — all of you.”

Judith rose also, and went quickly up to him. “Martin,” she said in a frightened voice, “what are you going to do?”

“Do? Nothing. You’d better answer that telegram yourself,” he retorted roughly, shaking off the hand she had put out. He walked across the room, blinked unseeingly at his hat and stick, which he had thrown down on the table, and turned to go out of the door without remembering to pick them up. On the threshold he was checked by Judith’s passionate clutch on his arm. Her lifted face was wet and frightened. “Martin — why don’t you say you think I’m a thief, and have done with it?”

He swung round on her. “I think you’re an unutterable fool. I think the average Andaman islander has a more highly developed moral sense than you.”

“I don’t know who they are. But Doll Westway always used to — ”

“Used to what?”

“Go to her mother’s drawer. There wasn’t any other way. They all hate the bother of paying bills — parents do.” She clung to him, her lips still trembling.

“Miss Scope knows about this, I suppose?”

She nodded. “I persuaded her. She hated it awfully — but she saw there was no other way. She’s saved so little herself — because she has a brother who drinks. . .”

“And Terry? Does Terry know?”

“Oh, Martin! Terry? How could you think it? But you don’t really, do you? You just said that to frighten me. Oh, Martin . . . you’ll never tell Terry, will you? I shall die if you do. It doesn’t matter about anybody else. . .”

He stood silent, suffering her clasp of desperate entreaty, as if a numbness had crept into the arm she held, and yet as if every nerve in it were fire. Something of the same duality was in his brain as he listened. It struck him dumb with the sense of his incapacity. All the forces of pity — and of something closer to the soul than pity — were fighting in him for her. But opposed to them was the old habit of relentless unconditional probity; the working man’s faith in a standard to be kept up, and imposed on others, at no matter what cost of individual suffering. “I can’t let her drift,” was as near as he could come to it. . .

“Martin, tell me what you want me to do,” she whispered, her lips trembling. His own hardened.

“Sit down at that table and write to your father that you took the money — and why you took it.”

For a while she considered this painfully. “If I don’t,” she finally brought out, “shall you tell Terry?”

He gave her an indignant look. “Of course I shan’t tell Terry!”

“Very well. Then I will.”

Boyne flushed with the suddenness of his triumph, and most of all at the reason for it. “That’s my Judy!”

She coloured too, as if surprised, but her face remained drawn and joyless. “But if I do, the game’s up — isn’t it?”

“The game’s up anyhow, my dear.”

Her colour faded. “You mean you’re really going to give us away?”

He paused, and then said with deliberation: “I’m going to Venice at once to see your father.”

“To tell him we’re here?”

“Of course.”

Her hand fell from his arm, and she stood drooping before him, all the youth drained out of her face. He was frightened at the effect of his words. Her boundless capacity for suffering struck him as the strangest element in her tragic plight.

“Then you give us up altogether? You don’t care any longer what becomes of us?”

He paused a moment, and then turned back into the room, and took her two cold hands in his.

“Judith, look at me.” She obeyed.

“Can’t you understand that I care for only one thing at this moment? That you should realise what you’ve done — ”

“About the money?” she breathed.

“Of course. About the money.”

“You really think that matters more than anything else?”

The unexpectedness of the question suddenly cut him adrift from his argument. It seemed to come out of some other plane of experience, to be thrust at him from depths of pain and disillusionment that he had not yet begun to sound.

“You see,” she pressed on, snatching at her opportunity, “if we could only get to Grandma Mervin’s, I believe she’d keep us. At any rate, she’d try to make mother see that we mustn’t be separated. I know she would, because in her letters to mother she always calls us ‘those poor children.’ She’s awfully old~fashioned, Grandma Mervin . . . And the money, Martin — father won’t find out for ever so long that it’s gone. There was a lot more where I took it from. He always has such heaps with him; and he never knows how much he’s spent. Once he had a valet who stole a lot, and he didn’t discover it for months . . . And without that money we can’t possibly get to America. . .”

Boyne pulled himself together with an effort, averting his eyes from the perilous mirage. “And you’re gambling on being as lucky as the other thief?” There — saying that had cleared his conscience, and he could go on more humanely: “Don’t you see, child, that this business of the money spoils the whole thing? You’ve got to give it back to me; and I’ve got to take it to your father. Then I’ll put up the best fight I can for you.”

Of this appeal she seemed to hear only the last words. “You will — oh, Martin, darling, you really will?”

In an instant her arms were about his neck, her wet face pressed against his lips. (“Now . . . now . . . now . . .” he grumbled.) “I knew it, Martin! I knew in my soul you’d never chuck us,” she exulted in the sudden ecstasy of her relief. Waves of buoyancy seemed to be springing beneath her feet. “Martin, I know you’ll know just what to say to them,” she chanted.

“Go upstairs, Judith, and get that money,” he admonished her severely.

She turned and left the room. While she was gone he stood gazing out of the window. Of all the world of light and freedom before him, its spreading mountain slopes, its spires of granite reared into a cloud-pillared sky, and the giant blue shadows racing each other across the valleys, he saw nothing but the narrow thread of railway winding down to Venice and the Wheaters. He had still to make Judith write the letter to her father. He had still to deliver her — this child who trusted him — bound and helpless into the hands of the enemy.

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