The Children, by Edith Wharton

XXI

That evening, when the children, weary but still jubilant, had been dropped at the Pension Rosenglüh, and Boyne had joined Mrs. Sellars for a late dinner at the châlet, the first thing that struck him was that his sapphire had reappeared on her hand.

He wondered afterward how it was that he, in general so unobservant of such details, had noticed that she had resumed the modest stone; and concluded that it was because of Judith’s ridiculous cross~examination about the date of his marriage. He almost suspected that, baffled by his evasiveness, the pertinacious child had ended by addressing herself to Mrs. Sellars, and that the latter, thus challenged, had put on her ring. But no — though Judith was sometimes lacking in tact (as she herself acknowledged) this indiscretion could not be imputed to her, for the reason that Mrs. Sellars — Boyne remembered it only now — had not reappeared on the scene till it was time to pack the sleepy picnickers into the motors. She and Mr. Dobree had been a long time away. They had apparently prolonged their walk, and, incidentally, had failed to find the promised strawberries — or else had consumed them on the spot. And on the way home Judith and Mrs. Sellars had not been in the same car. Why, then, had Mrs. Sellars suddenly put on her ring? Boyne would only suppose that she had decided, for reasons unknown to him, to announce their engagement that night to Mr. Dobree, who was no doubt going to join them at dinner.

The idea obscurely irritated Boyne; he felt bored in advance by the neat and obvious things Mr. Dobree would consider it becoming to say. Boyne’s whole view of Mrs. Sellars’s friend had been changed by his sudden glimpse of the man who had looked out of Mr. Dobree’s eyes at Judith. Before that, Boyne had pigeon-holed him as the successful lawyer, able in his profession, third-rate in other capacities, with a methodically planned existence of which professional affairs filled the larger part, and the rest was divided up like a carefully-weighed vitamin diet (Mr. Dobree was strong on vitamins) between exercise, society, philanthropy and travel. Now, a long way off down this fair perspective, a small, an almost invisible Dobree, lurked and prowled, staring as he had stared at Judith. A sudden irritation filled Boyne at the thought of what, unknown to Mrs. Sellars, peered and grimaced behind her legal counsellor. It was as if Mr. Dobree had unconsciously evoked for him some tragic allegory of Judith’s future. . .

“Where’s your friend? Are we waiting for him?” Boyne’s question sounded abrupt in his own ears, but was received by Mrs. Sellars with her usual equanimity.

“Mr. Dobree? No, we’re not waiting for him. He’s not coming.”

Boyne felt relieved, yet vaguely baffled. If Dobree wasn’t coming (he immediately thought), why the devil wasn’t he? And what was he up to instead?

“Chucked you for a party at the ‘Palace,’ I suppose? I’m glad he didn’t drag you up there to dine with him.”

“No; I don’t think he’s giving a party — or going to one. He had letters to write; and he said he was tired.”

This seemed to dispose of the matter, and Boyne, still faintly disturbed, followed his betrothed to the dining-table, at which of late he had so seldom sat alone with her.

“Don’t you like it better like this?” she asked, smiling at him across the bowl of wild roses which stood between them.

It was indeed uncommonly pleasant to be alone with her again. She gratified him, at the outset, by praising the behaviour of the children on the picnic; and as they talked he began to think that his growing irritability, and his odd reluctance to look forward to their future together, had been caused only by the intrusion of irrelevant problems and people. “When we’re alone together everything’s always all right,” he thought, reassured.

Dinner over, they drifted out onto the balcony in the old way, and he lit his cigar, and yielded to the sense of immediate wellbeing. He saw that Rose Sellars knew he was glad to be alone with her, and that the knowledge put her at her ease, and made her want to say and do whatever would maintain that mood in him. There was something pathetic in the proud creature’s eagerness to be exactly what he wished her to be.

“Judith was looking her very prettiest today, wasn’t she? Mr. Dobree was so much struck by her,” she said softly, after a silence.

It was as if she had flung a boulder into the very middle of the garden-plot she had just been at such pains to lay out. Boyne met the remark with an exasperated laugh.

“I should say he WAS struck. That was fairly obvious.”

“Well — she is striking, at times,” Mrs. Sellars conceded, still more gently.

“As any lovely child is. That’s what she is — a lovely child. Dobree looks at her like a dog licking his jaws over a bone.”

“Martin —!”

“Sorry. I never could stand your elderly men who look at little girls. If your friend is so dotty about Judith, he’d better ask her to marry him. He’s rich, isn’t he? His money might be an inducement — who knows?”

“Marry her? Marry Judith? Mr. Dobree?” Mrs. Sellars gave way to a mild mirth. His words certainly sounded absurd enough when she echoed them; but Boyne, for the moment, was beyond heeding anything but the tumult in his own veins.

“Why not?” he continued. “As the poor child is situated, money is a big consideration. What’s the use of being a hypocrite about it? If she’s to fight her parents, and keep the children together, she’ll need cash, and a big pile of it; and a clever lawyer to manoeuvre for her, too. I call it an ideal arrangement.”

Mrs. Sellars waited a little before answering; then she said: “I don’t see how the biggest fortune, and the cleverest lawyer in the world, could keep the Wheaters from ordering their children home the day they choose to. But I’m sure that if Judith wanted help and advice no one would be more happy to give it to her than Mr. Dobree.”

“Ah, there you’re right,” Boyne agreed with an ironic shrug.

“Well, and don’t you think perhaps it might be a good thing if she did consult him — or at least if you did, for her?”

“If I intervened in any way between Dobree and Judith I don’t think he’d thank you for putting me up to it.”

“Why — what do you mean?”

“If you don’t know what I mean I can only suppose you didn’t notice how he was looking at the child this afternoon, before you carried him off for a walk.”

Mrs. Sellars fell silent again. He saw the faint lines of perplexity weaving their net over her face, and reflected that when a woman is no longer young she can preserve her air of freshness only in the intervals of feeling. “It’s too bad,” he thought, vexed with himself for having upset the delicate balance of her serenity. But now she was smiling again, a little painfully.

“Looking at her — looking at her how?”

“Well — as I’ve told you.”

The smile persisted. “I certainly didn’t see anything like that. And neither did I carry him off for a walk; as it happens, it was he who carried ME— ”

“Oh, well,” Boyne murmured at this touch of feminine vanity.

Mrs. Sellars continued: “And I don’t think he’s thinking of Judith in the way you imagine — or that he can have looked at her in that way. I hope he didn’t; because, as it happens, he took me off on that walk to ask me to marry him.”

The words dropped from her with a serene detachment, as if they had been her luminous little smile made audible. “I don’t know that it’s quite fair to him to tell you,” she added, with one of her old~fashioned impulses of reserve.

It was Boyne’s turn to find no answer. For some time he sat gazing into the summer darkness without speaking. “Marry him? Marry Dobree — you?”

“You see you were right: he does want to get married,” she softly bantered. “It was what he came for — to ask me. I’d no idea . . . And now he’s going away . . . he leaves to-morrow,” she added, with a faint sigh in which deprecation and satisfaction were perceptibly mingled. If it was her little triumph she took it meekly, even generously — but nevertheless, he saw, with a complete consciousness of what it meant.

Boyne laughed again, this time at himself.

“I don’t know what you see in it that is so absurd,” Mrs. Sellars murmured, a faint note of vexation in her voice. Again he found no reply, and she continued, with the distant air she assumed when echoing axioms current in her youth: “After all, it’s the highest honour a man can — ”

“Oh, quite,” Boyne agreed good-humouredly. He rubbed his hand across his forehead, as if to brush away some inner confusion. But it was no use; he couldn’t straighten his thoughts out. He couldn’t shake off the fact that his surprise and derision had not concerned Rose Sellars at all — that his laugh had simply mocked his own power of self-deception, and uttered his relief at finding himself so deceived. “So THAT was all!” The words escaped him unawares. In the dusk he felt the shadowy figure at his side stiffen and withdraw from him.

“Shall we go in? It’s getting chilly,” said Mrs. Sellars, turning back toward the lamplight.

Boyne, still in the bewilderment of his own thoughts, followed her into the room. He noticed that she had grown unusually pale. She sat down beside the table, and began turning over the letters and papers which the evening post had brought. Boyne stood in front of the fireplace, his hands in his pockets, watching her movements as one letter after another slipped through her fingers. But all he could see was the sapphire ring, re-established, enthroned, proclaiming his own destiny to all concerned and unconcerned.

“So you told him you were already engaged?”

She looked up at him. “It was only fair, wasn’t it?”

“Certainly — that is, if being engaged was the only obstacle.”

“The only obstacle?”

“If you were prepared to marry Dobree, supposing you’d still been free.”

She weighed this, and then laughed a little, but without much gaiety. “How do I know what I should have done if I’d been free?”

He continued to look at her. “Do you want to try?”

The colour rose to her forehead. She dropped the letters, and composed her hands on them as if in the effort to control a secret agitation. “Is this a way of telling me you’re vexed because I announced our engagement to Mr. Dobree?”

He hesitated, feeling (and now he hated himself for feeling) that it was a moment for going warily. “Not vexed; that’s not the word. Only I did agree with you that, as long as — as nothing about our future was definitely settled — it was ever so much pleasanter keeping our private affairs to ourselves. It was your own idea, you know; you proposed it,” he reminded her, as she remained silent.

“Yes; it was my idea.” She pondered. “But you needn’t be afraid that Mr. Dobree will betray us.”

“It’s not a question of betraying. It’s just the feeling — ”

“The feeling that some one else is in our secret? But all the Wheater children have been — for a long time.” She spoke the words ever so lightly, as if she had barely pencilled them on a smooth page.

Boyne was startled. He could see no analogy, but did not know how to explain that there was none. “Oh, the children; but the children don’t count. Besides, that wasn’t my fault. Judith guessed.” He smiled a little at the reminiscence. “But perhaps Mr. Dobree guessed,” he added, with a return of ease. After all, he was carrying it off very well, he thought — though what he meant by “it” he would have been put to it to say.

Mrs. Sellars gave another little laugh. “Oh, no; Mr. Dobree didn’t guess. I had to dot the i’s for him. The fact is” — she paused a moment — “he was convinced that you were in love with Judith Wheater.”

Instantly all the resentments and suspicions which Boyne had dismissed rushed back on him. He had been right, then — he had not mistaken the signs and portents. As if they were ever mistakable! “How rotten,” he said in a low voice.

Mrs. Sellars dropped one of the letters which she had absently taken up again.

“Martin — ”

“Rotten. The mere thinking of such a thing — much less insinuating it to any one else. But it just shows — ” He broke off, and then began again, on a fresh wave of indignation: “Shows what kind of a mind he must have. Thinking in that way about a child — a mere child — and about any man, any DECENT man; regarding it as possible, perhaps as natural . . . worst of all, suggesting it of some one standing in my position toward these children; as if I might take advantage of my opportunities to — to fall in love with a child in the schoolroom!”

Boyne’s words sounded in his own ears as if they were being megaphoned at him across the width of the room. He dropped down into the nearest chair, hot, angry, ashamed, with a throat as dry as if he had been haranguing an open-air meeting on a dusty day.

Opposite him, Mrs. Sellars remained with her hands suspended above the letters. The sapphire burned at him across the interval. “Martin . . . but you ARE in love with her!” she exclaimed. She paused a moment, and then added in a quieter voice: “I believe I’ve always known it.” They sat and looked at each other without speaking.

At length Boyne rose, and started to move around the table to where she was sitting.

“This is ridiculous — ” he began.

She held up her hand, and the gesture, though evidently meant only to check the words on his lips, had the effect also of arresting his advance. He felt self-conscious and clumsy, and dimly resented her making him feel so. He was sure it was she who had been ridiculous, not he; yet, curiously enough, the conviction brought him no solace. Again they faced each other, guardedly, apprehensively, as if something fragile and precious, which they had been carrying together, had slipped between their fingers and been broken. He felt that, if he glanced at the floor, he might see the glittering fragments. . .

Mrs. Sellars was the first to recover her self-possession. She rose in her turn, and going up to Boyne laid her hand on his arm.

“I wonder why we’re trying to hurt each other?” She looked at him through moist lashes, and he felt himself a brute for not instantly taking her in his arms and obliterating their discussion with a kiss. But there lay the glittering fragments, and he could not seem to reach to her across them.

“Now I know what she thinks of Judith,” he reflected savagely.

“It’s all my fault, Martin; I know I’m nervous and stupid.” She was clasping his arm, pleading with lifted eyes and lips. Her self~abasement humiliated him. “If she really thinks what she says, why doesn’t she kick me out?” he wondered.

“I suppose I walked too far today, and got over-tired; and what Mr. Dobree said startled me, upset me. . .”

He smiled. “His asking you to marry him?”

She smiled back a little wearily. “No. But what he said about — about your interest in Judith. You must understand, dear, that sometimes your attitude about those children is a little surprising to people who don’t know all the circumstances.”

Boyne felt himself hardening again. “What business is it of people who don’t know all the circumstances? YOU do; that’s enough.”

She seized at this with a distressing humility. “Of course I do, dearest; of course it is. And you’ll try to forget my stupid nerves, won’t you? Try to think of me as I am when there’s nobody in the world but you and me?” Her arms stole up to his shoulders, her hands met behind his neck, and she drew his head down softly. “If only it could always be like that!”

As their lips touched he shut his eyes, and tried, with a violent effort of the will, to recall what her kiss would have meant to him on the far-off day when the news of Sellars’s death had overtaken him somewhere in the Nubian desert, and in the middle of the night he had started awake, still clutching the letter, and crying out to himself: “At last. . .”

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