The Children, by Edith Wharton

II

It was none of Boyne’s business to tell his new neighbour that the chair she had chosen was Mrs. Cliffe Wheater’s; the less so as she might (he decided on closer inspection) turn out to be a governess or other dependent of that lady’s. But no (after another look); she was too young for the part, even if she had looked or acted it — and she didn’t. Her tone in addressing her invisible companions was that of command, not subservience: they were the nurses and governesses, not she. Probably she had taken Mrs. Wheater’s chair because it was one of the few empty ones left, and was well aware that she might presently be asked to evacuate it. That was just what Boyne would have liked to spare her; he didn’t see Joyce Wheater — the Joyce he had known — yielding her seat without a battle.

“I beg your pardon; but in case somebody should claim this chair, I might find another for you before the whole front row is taken up.”

The phrase sounded long and clumsy, but it was out before he had time to polish it. He had to hear her voice again, and also to get her to turn her eyes his way. She did so now, with perfect composure. Evidently she was not surprised at his addressing her, but only at the fact he imparted.

“Isn’t this my chair?” She reached for the label and examined it. “Yes; I thought it was.”

“Oh, I’m sorry — ”

“That’s all right. They ARE filling up, aren’t they?”

Her brown eyes, under deep lashes like Blanca’s, rested on him in polite acknowledgment of his good will; but he was too bewildered to see anything but a starry blur.

Mrs. Cliffe Wheater, then — this child? Well, after all, why not? His Mrs. Cliffe Wheater she obviously could not be; but in these days of transient partnerships there was no reason for expecting it. The Wheaters HE knew must have been married nearly twenty years ago; and Cliffe Wheater, in the interval, had made money enough to treat himself to half-a-dozen divorces and remarriages, with all the attendant outlay. “No more to him than doing over a new house — good deal less than running a steam-yacht,” Boyne half enviously reflected.

Yes; his neighbour was obviously a later — was the latest — Mrs. Wheater; probably two or three removes from poor Joyce. Though why he should think of her as poor Joyce, when in all probability she had moved off across the matrimonial chess-board at the same rate of progression as her first husband . . . Well, at any rate, if this was a new Mrs. Cliffe Wheater, Boyne might insinuate himself into her field of vision as an old friend of her husband’s; a sufficient plea, he argued, between passengers on a pleasure~cruise. Only, remembering Terry’s cool reception of his father’s name, he hesitated. These modern matrimonial tangles were full of peril to the absentee. . .

The question was answered by the appearance of Blanca, who came dancing toward them like a butterfly waltzing over a bed of thyme.

As she approached, the young lady at Boyne’s side said severely: “Child! Why haven’t you got on your coat? Go and ask Scopy for it at once. The wind is cold.”

Blanca leaned against her with a caressing gesture.

“All right.” But instead of moving she slanted her gaze again toward Boyne. “He says he used to know father,” she imparted.

The young lady turned her head also, and Boyne felt the mysterious weight of her eyes upon his face. “How funny!” was her simple comment. It seemed to strike all the group with equal wonder that Martin Boyne should be on speaking terms with its chief. “Not smart enough, I suppose; no Bond Street suit-cases,” he grumbled to himself, remembering the freight of costly pigskin which had followed his neighbour up the gangway.

The latter’s attention had already turned from him. “Blanca! I tell you to go and put on your coat. And see that Terry has his . . . Don’t lean on me like that, child. Can’t you see that Chip’s asleep?”

She spoke a little wearily, almost irritably, Boyne thought; but as she bent over the child her little profile softened, melting into something puerile and appealing. “Hush!” she signalled; and Blanca, obedient, tiptoed off.

Boyne, at this, invoking Uncle Edward, patron saint of the adventurous, risked a playful comment. “You’ve got them wonderfully well in hand.”

She smiled. “Oh, they’re very good children; all except . . . ZINNIE—!” she screamed; and Boyne, following her horrified glance, saw a stark naked little figure with a shock of orange-coloured hair and a string of amber beads capering toward them to the wonder and delight of the double row of spectators in the deck-chairs.

In a flash the young lady was on her feet, and Boyne was pressing a soap-scented bundle to his breast. “Hold Chip!” she commanded. “Oh, that little red devil!” She sped down the deck and catching up the orange-headed child gave her a violent shaking. “You’ll be catching cold next, you wretch,” she admonished her, as if this were the head and front of the child’s offending; and having pushed the culprit into the arms of a pursuing nurse she regained her seat.

“How nicely you’ve held him! He’s still asleep.” She received back the hot baby, all relaxed and slumber-scented, and the eyes she turned on Boyne were now full of a friendly intimacy — and much younger, he thought, than Blanca’s. “Did you ever mind a baby before?” she asked.

“Yes; but not such a good one — nor so heavy.”

She shone with pride. “Isn’t he an armful? He’s nearly two pounds heavier than most children of two. When Beechy was his age she weighed only . . .”

“Beechy?” Boyne interrupted. “I thought you called her Zinnie.”

“Zinnie? Oh, but she’s not the same as Beechy.” She laughed with something of a child’s amusement at the ignorance of the grown up. “Beechy’s a step — but you haven’t seen the other steps,” she reminded herself. “I wonder where on earth they are?”

“The steps?” he echoed, in deeper bewilderment.

“Bun and Beechy. They only half belong to us, and so does Zinnie. They’re all three step-children. But we’re just as devoted to them as if they were altogether ours; except when Bun is naughty. Bun is my only naughty child! — oh, do hold Chip again!” she exclaimed, and once more Boyne became the repository of that heap of rosy slumber.

“There’s Bun now — and I never trust him when he’s by himself! I CAN’T,” she wailed, as a sturdy little brown boy in a scarlet jumper came crawling down the deck on all fours, emitting strange animal barks and crowings. “He’s going to do his menagerie-tricks. Oh, dear — And he can’t, with the ship rolling like this. His mother was a lion-tamer. But he’ll hurt himself, I know he will — oh, Scopy! Yes; do take him. . .”

A gaunt narrow-chested lady with a face hewn into lines of kindly resolution, and a faded straw hat cocked sideways on her blown gray hair, had appeared in Bun’s wake and set him on his feet as firmly as the rolling deck permitted. His face, dusky with wrath, squared itself for a howl; but at that moment a very small brown girl, with immense agate-coloured eyes and a thicket of dark curls, dashed out of a state-room, and hurried to him with outstretched arms. Instantly the offender’s wrath turned to weeping, and the two little creatures fell dramatically on each other’s bosoms, while the governess, unmoved by this display of feeling, steered them sternly back to their quarters.

The young lady at Boyne’s side leaned back with a laugh. “Isn’t Scopy funny? She can’t bear it when Bun falls on Beechy’s neck like that. She calls it ‘so foreign and unmanly.’ And of course they ARE foreign . . . they’re Italian . . . but I’m too thankful that Beechy has such an influence over Bun. If it weren’t for her we should have our hands full with him.” She hugged the sleep~drunk Chip to her bosom.

“You must have your hands rather full as it is — I mean even without Bun?” Boyne ventured, consumed by the desire to see farther into this nursery tangle, and follow its various threads back to the young creature at his side. “Travelling with them all like this — and without Wheater to help you out,” he pushed on.

At this she shrugged a little. “Oh, he’s not much at helping out; he loathes to travel with us,” she said, slightingly yet not unkindly. Boyne was beginning to think that her detached view of human weaknesses was perhaps the most striking thing about her.

“But Terry helps — most wonderfully,” she added, a smile of maternal tenderness lighting her small changeful face, in which so many things were always happening that Boyne had not yet had time to decide if it were pretty or just curiously loveable.

“My cabin-mate,” Boyne smiled. “Yes; a big boy like that must be a comfort.” He dared not say “a big son like that,” for he could not believe that the girl at his side could be the mother of a tall lad of Terry’s age. Yet she had distinctly not classed him among the “steps”! In his perplexity he ventured: “A chap of that age is always so proud of his mother.”

She seemed to think that this needed consideration. “Well, I don’t know that Terry’s proud of Joyce, exactly — but he admires her, of course; we all do. She’s so awfully handsome. I don’t believe even Blanca is going to come up to her.”

Joyce! Boyne caught at the familiar name as at a lifebelt. Evidently his old friend Joyce Mervin was still situated somewhere within the Wheater labyrinth. But where? And who was this young thing who gave her her Christian name so easily? Everything that seemed at first to enlighten him ended only by deepening his perplexity.

“Do you know that Joyce, as you call her, used to be a great friend of mine years ago?” There could be no harm, at least, in risking that.

“Oh, was she? How jolly! She says she looked exactly like Blanca then. Did she? Of course she’s a little thick now — but not nearly as much so as she imagines. She does so fret about it. It’s her great unhappiness.”

Boyne laughed. “You mean she hasn’t any worse ones?”

“Oh, no. Not now. They’ve been on a new honeymoon since Chip . . . haven’t they, old Chippo?”

“They . . .?” On a new honeymoon? Since Chip? Then the sleeping cherub was not the property of the girl at his side, but of Joyce Mervin . . . Joyce Wheater . . . Joyce Somebody . . . Oh, how he longed to ask: “Joyce WHO?”

This last step forward seemed really to have landed him in the heart of the labyrinth; the difficulty now was to find his way out again.

But the young lady’s confidences seemed to invite his own. Or was it just that she had the new easy way with people? Very likely. Still, an old fogey out of the wilderness might be excused for taking it as something more — a sign of sympathy, almost an invitation to meet her fresh allusions with fresh questions.

“Yes; we were friends — really great friends for a winter . . .”

(“That’s long, for Joyce,” said his neighbour parenthetically.)

“ . . . such good friends that I should like to tell you my name: Martin Boyne — and to ask what your — ”

“Oh — OH!!!” She shrilled it out so precipitately that it cut his last word in two. At first he could not guess the cause of this new disturbance; but in a moment he discovered the young Bun walking with bare feet and a cat-like agility along the backs of the outer row of deck-chairs, while their occupants ducked out of his way and laughed their approval of his skill.

“She was also a tight-rope dancer — his mother was,” the girl flung back, leaping in Bun’s direction. Having caught and cuffed him, and cuffed him again in answer to his furious squeals, she dragged him away to the firm dishevelled lady who had previously dealt with him. When she returned to her seat, pale and a little breathless, she looked as if her domestic cares sometimes weighed on her too heavily. She dropped down by Boyne with a sigh. “If ever you marry,” she enjoined him (“And how does she know I never have?” he wondered), “don’t you have any children — that’s all I say! Do you wonder mother and father don’t care to travel with the lot of us?”

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