The Children, by Edith Wharton

Book III

XVII

On the afternoon of the fourth day Boyne stood again in the sitting~room of the châlet facing the Cristallo group.

He had wired to Judith Wheater: “All right, don’t worry”; but to Mrs. Sellars he had made no sign. He knew she did not wholly approve of his journey, though she had made no unfavourable comment, and had even offered of her own accord to keep an eye on the Pension Rosenglüh in his absence. It was not necessary for Rose Sellars to formulate objections; they were latent everywhere in her delicate person, in the movements of her slim apprehensive fingers, the guarded stir of her lashes. But the sense of their lurking there, vigilant guardians of the threshold, gave a peculiar quality to every token of her approval. Boyne told himself that she was not a denier, but that rarer being, a chooser; and he was almost certain where her choice would lie when all the facts were before her.

She was out when he reached the châlet, and his conviction strengthened as he sat awaiting her. It drew its strength from the very atmosphere of the place — its self-sufficing harmony. “Willkommen, suesser Daemmerschein!” His apostrophe took in the mighty landscape which overhung him; the sense of peace flowed in on him from those great fastnesses of sun and solitude, with which the little low-ceilinged room, its books and flowers, the bit of needle-work in the armchair, the half-written letter on the desk, had the humble kinship of quietness and continuity. “I’d forgotten that anything had any meaning,” he thought to himself as he let the spell of the place weave its noiseless net about him.

“Martin — but how tired you look!” She was on the threshold, their hands and lips together. He remembered that kiss afterward . . . She lingered close, her arms on his shoulders. “I didn’t even know you’d got back.” There was the faintest shadow of reproach in her tone.

“I didn’t know till the last minute when I could get away — I just jumped into the first train,” he explained. He was conscious of the weariness in his voice. He passed his hand over his eyes as though to see if it would brush away her image, or if there were still women like her in the world, all made of light and reason. “Dear!” he said, more to himself than her.

“You’ve failed?” Her eyes were full of an unmixed sympathy; there was nothing in them to remind him that they had foreseen his failure.

“No,” he exclaimed, “I’ve succeeded!”

“Oh — .” He fancied he detected a hint of flatness in the rejoinder; there are occasions, he knew, when one has to resign oneself to the hearing of good news. But no; he was unfair. It was not that, it was only the echo of his own fatigue. For, as she said, he was tired — thoroughly tired. . .

She continued, with a faint smile: “You don’t look like somebody who has succeeded.”

“I daresay not. I feel rather like one of the fellows they let down into a disused well, and haul up half-asphyxiated. . .”

“It was — asphyxiating?”

“Some of it; most of it. But I’m coming to. And I’ve got what I wanted.” He returned her smile, and sat down beside her.

“How wonderful! You mean to say you’ve reconciled the Wheaters?”

“I’ve reconciled them to the idea of not separating the children — for the present, at any rate.”

“Oh, Martin — splendid!” She was really warming to the subject now. Her face glowed with a delicate appreciation. “It will do Terry more good than all the Alps and Dolomites piled on top of one another.”

“Yes; and Judith too, incidentally.” He had no intention of not including Judith in his victory.

“Of course; but Judith’s a young lady who is eminently capable of fighting her own battles,” Mrs. Sellars smoothly rejoined.

“She ought to be — she’s had to fight everybody else’s.”

He leaned his head against the back of his armchair, and wondered what had become of the glow with which he had entered the room. It had vanished instantly under the cool touch of Mrs. Sellars’s allusion to Judith. He had succeeded, it was true: there could be no doubt that he had succeeded. The mere fact of gaining time was nine tenths of the battle; and that he had already achieved. But already, too, he was beginning to wonder how he was to fit Rose Sellars into the picture of his success. It was curious: when they were apart it was always her courage and her ardour that he felt; as soon as they came together again she seemed hemmed in by little restrictions and inhibitions.

“Do tell me just what happened,” she said.

“Well — at the very last minute they decided to make me, informally, into the children’s guardian: a sort of trial-guardian, you might call it.”

“A trial-guardian?” Her intonation, and the laugh that followed it, lifted the term into the region of the absurd. “What a jolly thing to be a trial-guardian!”

“Well, I’m not so sure.” Boyne faced her irritably. “It’s not a joke, you know.”

“I shan’t know what it is till you explain.”

Explain — explain! Yes; he knew now that the explaining was just what he was dodging away from. To Judith and Terry no explanations would be necessary. He would only have to say: “It’s all right,” and be smothered in hugs and jubilations. Those two would never think of asking for reasons — life had not accustomed them to expect any. But here sat lovely Logic, her long hands clasped attentively —

“Oh, by Jove!” Boyne exclaimed, clapping his own hands first on one pocket, then on another. “Here’s something I got for you in Venice.”

He drew forth a small parcel, stringless and shapeless, as parcels generally seemed to be when they emerged from his pockets, unwrapped the paper, and pressed the catch of a morocco box. The lid flew open, and revealed a curious crystal pendant in a network of worn enamel.

“Oh, the lovely thing! For me?”

“Oh, no; not that,” he stammered. He jerked the trinket back, wrapped the box up, and pushed it into his pocket with the exasperated sense of blushing like a boy over his blunder.

“But, Martin — ”

“Here — .” He delved deeper, pulled out another parcel, in wrappings equally untidy, and took up one of the long hands lying on her knee. “This is for you.” He slipped on her fourth finger a sapphire set in diamonds. She lowered her lids on it in gentle admiration. “It’s much too beautiful,” her lips protested. Then her mockery sparkled up at him. “Only, you’ve put it on the wrong hand — at least, if it’s meant for our engagement.”

“Looks as if it were, doesn’t it?” he bantered back; but inwardly he was thinking: “Yes, that’s just the trouble — it looks like the engagement ring any other fellow would have given to any other woman. Nothing in the world to do with her and me.” Aloud he said: “I hadn’t time to find what I wanted — ” and then realised that this was hardly a way of bettering his case. “I wanted something so awfully different for you,” he blundered on.

“Well, your wanting that makes it different — to me,” she said; and added, more tepidly: “Besides, it’s lovely.” She held out her left hand, and he slipped the jewel on the proper finger. “It’s rotten,” he grumbled. The ring had cost him more than he could afford, it had failed to please her, he saw himself that it was utterly commonplace — and saw also that she would never forgive him for pocketing the trinket he had first produced, which was nothing in itself, but had struck her fancy as soon as she knew it was not meant for her. Should he pull it out again, and ask her to accept it? No; after what had passed that was impossible. Judith Wheater, if he had been trying an engagement ring on her finger (preposterous fancy!) would have blurted out at once that she preferred the trinket he had shoved back into his pocket. But such tactlessness was unthinkable in Mrs. Sellars. Not for the world, he knew, would she have let him guess that she had given the other ornament a thought.

She sat turning her hand from side to side and diligently admiring the ring. “And now — do tell me just what happened.”

“Well — first, of course, a lot of talk.”

He settled himself in his chair, and tried to take up the narrative. But wherever he grasped it, the awkward thing seemed to tumble out of his hold, as if, in that respect too, he were always taking the wrong parcel out of his pocket. To begin with, it was so difficult to explain to Mrs. Sellars that, after the Wheaters had been reassured as to the safety and wellbeing of the children, the negotiations had been carried on piecemeal, desultorily, parenthetically, between swims and sun-baths, cocktails and foxtrots, poker and baccara — and, as a rule, in the presence of all the conflicting interests.

To make Mrs. Sellars understand that Lady Wrench, her husband and Gerald Ormerod had assisted at the debates as a matter of course was in itself a laborious business; to convey to her that Mrs. Lullmer — still notorious as the former Mrs. Westway — had likewise been called upon to participate, as Joyce’s possible successor, was to place too heavy a strain on her imagination. Her exquisite aloofness had kept her in genuine ignorance of the compromises and promiscuities of modern life, and left on her hands the picture of a vanished world wherein you didn’t speak to people who were discredited, or admit rivals or enemies to your confidence; and she punctuated Boyne’s narrative with murmurs of dismay and incredulity.

“But in that crowd,” Boyne explained, “no man is another man’s enemy for more than a few minutes, and no woman is any other woman’s rival. Either they forget they’ve quarrelled, or some social necessity — usually a party that none of them can bear to miss — forces them together, and makes it easier to bury their differences. But generally it’s a simple case of forgetting. Their memories are as short as a savage’s, and the feuds that savages remember have dropped out. They recall only the other primitive needs — food, finery, dancing. I suppose we ARE relapsing into a kind of bloodless savagery,” Boyne concluded.

Besides, he went on, in the Wheater set they could deal with things only collectively; alone, they became helpless and inarticulate. They lived so perpetually in the lime-light that they required an audience — an audience made up of their own kind. Before each other they shouted and struck attitudes; again like savages. But the chief point was that nobody could stay angry — not however much they tried. It was too much trouble, and might involve too many inconveniences, interfere with too many social arrangements. When all was said and done, all they asked was not to be bothered — and it was by gambling on that requirement that he had finally gained his point.

“And your point is, exactly — ”

Well, as he got closer to it, Boyne was not even sure that it could be defined as a point. It was too shapeless and undecided; but he hoped it would serve for a time — and time was everything; especially for Terry. . .

“They’ve agreed to leave the children together, and to leave them here, for the next three or four months. The longest to bring round was Lady Wrench. Her husband has taken a fancy to Zinnie, and he’s so mortally bored by life in general that his wife clutches at anything that may amuse him. Luckily, according to the terms of the divorce — ”

“Which divorce?” Mrs. Sellars interpolated, as though genuinely anxious to keep her hand on all the clues.

“Wheater versus Zinnia Lacrosse. It was Wheater who got the divorce from the present Lady Wrench. Legally he has the final say about Zinnie, so the mother had to give in, though she has a right to see the child at stated intervals. But of course my battle royal was over Chipstone; if the Wheaters had insisted on keeping Chipstone till their own affairs were settled in court the whole combination would have been broken up.”

“And how did you contrive to rescue Chipstone?”

Boyne sank down more deeply into his armchair, and looked up at the low ceiling. Then he straightened himself, and brought his gaze to the level of Mrs. Sellars’s. “By promising to stay here and keep an eye on the children myself. That’s my trial-guardianship.” He gave a slight laugh, which she failed to echo.

“Martin!”

His eyes continued to challenge hers, “Well —?”

She turned the sapphire hesitatingly on her finger. “But these children — you’d never even heard of them till you met them on board your steamer a few weeks ago. . .”

“No; that’s true.”

“You’ve taken over a pretty big responsibility.”

“I like responsibilities.”

Mrs. Sellars was still brooding over her newly imprisoned finger. “It’s very generous of you to assume this one in such a hurry. Usually one doesn’t have to go out of one’s way to find rather more of them than one can manage. But in this case, I wonder — ”

“You wonder?”

“Well, I had understood from Terry — and also from your friend Judith — that what all the children really want is to go to America: to Mrs. Wheater’s mother, isn’t it?”

“Yes; that’s it; and I hope they’ll pull it off by-and-by. But at present the Wheaters won’t hear of it. I never for a moment supposed they’d consent to putting the ocean between themselves and Chip. My only chance was to persuade them that, now Terry’s in the mountains, they’d better leave him here, and the others with him, till the hot weather’s over. With those people it’s always a question of the least resistance — of temporizing and postponing. My plan saved everybody a certain amount of mental effort; so they all ended by agreeing to it. But of course it’s merely provisional.”

“Happily,” Mrs. Sellars smiled; and added, as if to correct the slight acerbity of the comment: “For you must see, dear, that you’re taking a considerable risk for the future — ”

“What future?”

“Why — suppose anything goes wrong during these next few months? You’ll be answerable for whatever may happen. With seven children — and one of them already grown up!”

Boyne frowned, and stirred uneasily in his chair. “If you mean Judith, in some ways she’s as much of a child as the youngest of them.”

Mrs. Sellars smiled confidentially at her ring. “So a man would think, I suppose. But you forget that I’ve had four days alone with her . . . She’s a young lady with very definite views.”

“I should hope so!”

“I agree with you that it makes her more interesting — but conceivably it might lead to complications.”

“What sort of complications?”

“You ought to know better than I do — since you tell me you’ve been frequenting the late Mrs. Westway at the Lido. Judith doesn’t pretend to hide the fact that she lived for a summer in the bosom of that edifying family. . .”

“She doesn’t know it’s anything to hide. That’s what’s so touching — ”

“And so terrifying. But I won’t sit here preaching prudence; you’d only hate me for it. And all this time those poor infants are waiting.” She stood up with one of her sudden changes of look and tone; as if a cloud had parted, shedding a ray of her lost youth on her. He noticed for the first time that she was all in white, a rose on her breast, and a shady hat hanging from her arm. “Do go down and see them at once, dear. It’s getting late. I’ll walk with you to the foot of the hill; then I must come back and write some letters. . .” He smiled at the familiar formula, and she took up his smile. “Yes; really important letters — one of them to Aunt Julia,” she bantered back. “And besides, the children will want to have you all to themselves.” Magnanimously she added: “I must say they all behaved beautifully while you were away. They seemed to feel that they must do you credit. And as for Terry — I wish he were mine! When the break-up comes, as of course it will, why shouldn’t you and I adopt him?”

She put on her hat, and linked her arm in Boyne’s for the walk down the hill; but at the fringe of the wood, where the path dipped to the high road, she left him.

“You’ll come back and dine? I’ve got some news for you too,” she said as he turned down to the village.

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