The Children, by Edith Wharton

XXII

Next day, when Boyne thought over the scene of the previous night, he found for it all the excuses which occur to a sensible man in the glow of his morning bath.

It was all the result of idling and lack of hard exercise; when a working man has had too long a holiday, and resting has become dawdling, Satan proverbially intervenes. But though at first Boyne assumed all the blame, by the time he began to shave he had handed over a part to Mrs. Sellars. After all, it was because of her old~fashioned scruples, her unwillingness to marry him at once, and let him get back to work, that they were still loitering in the Dolomites. It probably wasn’t safe for middle-aged people to have too much leisure in which to weigh each other’s faults and merits.

But then, again, suddenly he thought: “If we’d been married, and gone home when I wanted to, what would have become of the children?” It was undoubtedly because Mrs. Sellars had insisted on prolonging their engagement that Boyne had become involved in the Wheater problem; but when he reached this point in his retrospect he found he could not preserve his impartiality. It was impossible to face the thought of what might have happened to the little Wheaters if chance had not put him in their way. . .

After all, then, everything was for the best. All he had to do was to persuade Mrs. Sellars of it (which ought not to be difficult, since it was a “best” of her own devising), and to banish from his mind the disturbing figure of Mr. Dobree. Perhaps — on second thoughts — his irritability of the previous evening had been partly due to the suspicion that Mrs. Sellars, for all her affected indifference, was flattered by Mr. Dobree’s proposal. “You never can tell — ” Boyne concluded, and shrugged that possibility away too. The thought that he might have had to desert his young friends in their hour of distress, and had been able, instead, to stay and help them, effaced all other considerations. So successfully did he talk himself over to this view that only one cloud remained on his horizon. Mrs. Sellars had 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”; and in saying it she had put her finger on Boyne’s inmost apprehension. He had told himself the same thing a hundred times; but to hear it from any one else made the danger seem more pressing. It reminded him that the little Wheaters’ hold on him was not half as frail as his own on them, and that it was folly to indulge the illusion that he could really direct or control their fate.

And meanwhile —?

Well, he could only mark time; thank heaven it was still his to mark! The Lido season had not yet reached its climax, and till it declined and fell he was free to suppose that its devotees would linger on, hypnotized. As between taking steps for an immediate divorce, and figuring to the last in the daily round of entertainment, Boyne felt sure that not one of the persons concerned would hesitate. They could settle questions of business afterward; and it was purely as business that they regarded a matter in which the extent of the alimony was always the chief point of debate. And what could replace the excitement of a Longhi ball at the Fenice, or of a Marriage of the Doge to the Adriatic, mimed in a reconstituted Bucentaur by the rank and fashion of half Europe? No one would be leaving Venice yet.

But, all the same, the days were flying. The increasing number of arrivals at Cortina, the growing throng of motors on all the mountain ways, showed that before long fashion would be moving from the seashore to the mountains; and when the Lido broke up, what might not break up with it? Boyne felt that the question must at last be faced; that he must have a talk about it that very day with Judith.

It was more than a month since Judith and her flock had appeared at Cortina; and the various parents concerned had promised Boyne that the children should be left in the Dolomites till the summer was over. But what was such a promise worth, and what did the phrase mean on lips so regardless of the seasons? Nothing — Boyne knew it. He was conscious now that, during the last four weeks, he had never gone down to the Pension Rosenglüh without expecting to be told that a summons or a command had come from the Lido. But so far there had been none. The children were protected by the fact that there was no telephone at the pension, and that none of their parents was capable — except under the most extreme pressure — of writing a letter.

When it was impossible to telephone they could, indeed, telegraph; but even the inditing of a telegram required a concentration of mind which, Boyne knew, would become increasingly difficult as the Lido season culminated. Telegrams did, of course, come, especially in the first days, both to Boyne and to Judith: long messages from Joyce about clothes and diet, rambling communications from Lady Wrench, setting forth her rights and grievances in terms which, by the time they had passed through two Italian telegraph-offices, were as confused as the thoughts in her own mind; and lastly, a curt wire from Cliffe Wheater to Boyne: “Wish it definitely understood relinquish no rights whatever how is Chipstone reply paid.”

To all these communications Boyne returned a comprehensive “All right,” and, acting on his advice, Judith did the same, merely adding particulars as to the children’s health and happiness. “On the whole, you know,” she explained to Boyne, “it’s a relief to them all, now the thing’s settled — I always knew it would be.” She and Terry still cherished the hope that in the autumn she would be permitted to take the children out to Grandma Mervin, in America; or that, failing permission, she would be encouraged by Boyne to carry them off secretly. With this in view, she and Miss Scope saved up every penny they could of the allowance which Cliffe Wheater had agreed to make, and which Boyne dealt out to them once a week. But all these arrangements were so precarious, so dependent on the moods of unreasonable and uncertain people, that it seemed a miracle that the little party at the Pension Rosenglüh was still undisturbed. Certainly, if it had been possible to reach them by telephone they would have been scattered long ago. “As soon as they break up at the Lido they’ll be after you,” Boyne had warned Judith from the first; but she had always answered hopefully: “Oh, no: not till after Cowes, if they still go there; and if they don’t, after Venice there’s Biarritz. You’ll see. And before Biarritz there’s a fortnight in Paris for autumn clothes.”

Cowes, in due course, had been relinquished, the Lido exerting too strong a counter-attraction; but after a few more weeks that show also would be packed away in the lumber-room of spent follies.

The fact of having these questions always on his mind kept Boyne from being unduly disturbed by his discussion of the previous evening with Mrs. Sellars. In the wholesome light of morning a sentimental flurry between two sensible people who were deeply attached to each other seemed as nothing compared to the ugly reality perpetually hanging over the little Wheaters; and he felt sure that Mrs. Sellars would take the same view.

She did not disappoint him. When he presented himself at the luncheon hour the very air of the little sitting-room breathed a new serenity; it was as if she had been out early to fill it with flowers. Boyne was not used to delicate readjustments in his sentimental relations. For so many years now his feeling for Rose Sellars had been something apart, like a beautiful picture on the wall of a quiet room; and his other amorous episodes had been too brief and simple for any great amount of manoeuvring. He was therefore completely reassured by the gaiety and simplicity of her welcome, and thought to himself once again that there was everything to be said in favour of a long social acquiescence. “A stupid woman, now, would insist on going over the whole thing again, like a blue-bottle that starts in banging about the room after you’re sure you’ve driven it out of the window.”

There was nothing of the blue-bottle about Mrs. Sellars; and she was timorously anxious that Boyne should know it. But her timidity was not base; if she submitted, she submitted proudly. The only sign she gave of a latent embarrassment was in her too great ease, her too blithe determination to deny it. But even this was minimised by the happy fact that she had a piece of news for him.

She did not tell him what it was till lunch was over, and they were finishing their coffee in the sitting-room: she knew the importance of not disturbing a man’s train of thought — even agreeably — while he is in the act of enjoying good food. Boyne had lit his cigar, and was meditating on the uniform excellence of the coffee she managed to give him, when she said, with a little laugh: “Only imagine — Aunt Julia’s on the Atlantic! I had a radio this morning. She says she’s coming over to Paris to see you.”

Boyne had pictured Aunt Julia — when he could spare the time for such an evocation — as something solid, ponderous, essentially immovable. She represented for him the obstinate stability of old New York in the flux of new experiments. It was like being told that Trinity Church, for instance, was taking a Loretto-flight across the Atlantic to see him.

Mrs. Sellars laughed at his incredulous stare. “Are you surprised? I’m not. You see, Aunt Julia was always the delicate sister, the one who had to be nursed. Aunt Gertrude, the strong one, who did the nursing, died last winter — and since then Aunt Julia’s been perfectly well.”

They agreed that such resurrections were not uncommon, and Mrs. Sellars went so far as to declare that, if she didn’t get to Paris in time to meet Aunt Julia, she was prepared to have the latter charter an aeroplane and descend on Cortina. “Indeed we’re only protected by the fact that I don’t believe there’s any landing~field in the Dolomites.”

She went on to say that she would have to leave in a day or two, as Aunt Julia, who was accustomed to having her path smoothed for her, had requested that hotel rooms fulfilling all her somewhat complicated requirements should be made ready for her arrival, a six-cylinder motor with balloon tires and an irreproachable chauffeur engaged to meet her at the station, and a doctor and a masseuse be found in attendance when she arrived — as a result of which precautions she hoped, after an interval of repose, to be well enough to occupy herself with her niece’s plans.

Boyne gasped. “Good Lord — what that cable must have cost her!”

“Oh, it’s not the cost that ever bothers Aunt Julia,” said Aunt Julia’s niece with a certain deference.

Boyne laughed, and agreed that Mrs. Sellars could not prudently refuse such a summons. Somehow it no longer offended him that she should obey it from motives so obviously interested. He could not have said why, but it now seemed to him natural enough that she should hold herself at the disposal of a rich old aunt. He wondered whether it was because her departure would serve to relieve a passing tension; but he dismissed this as a bit of idle casuistry. “The point is that she’s going — and that she and I will probably be awfully glad to see each other when she gets back.”

Mrs. Sellars cast a wistful look about her. After a pause she said: “You don’t know how I hate to think that our good evenings in this dear little room are so nearly over,” in a tone suggesting that she had rather expected Boyne to say it for her, and that he had somehow missed a cue.

“But why over? Not for more than a week, I hope? You’re not going to let yourself be permanently annexed by Aunt Julia?”

She smiled a little perplexedly: evidently other plans were in her mind, plans she had pictured him as instinctively divining. “Not permanently; but I don’t quite know when I shall be able to leave her — ”

“Oh, I say, my dear!”

The perplexity lifted from her smile: it seemed to reach out to him like a promise. “But then I expect you to join me very soon. As soon as Aunt Julia’s blood-pressure has been taken, and the doctor and the masseuse and the chauffeur have been tested and passed upon.”

Boyne listened in astonishment. It had never seriously occurred to him that he was to be involved in the ceremony of establishing Aunt Julia on European soil. “Oh, but look here — what earthly use should I be? Why should I be butchered to make Aunt Julia’s holiday?”

“You won’t be. It will be — almost the other way round. I’m going to do everything I possibly can for Aunt Julia; everything to start her successfully on her European adventure. And then I’m going to present the bill.”

“The bill?”

She nodded gaily. “You’re the bill. I’m going to present you, and say: ‘Now you’ve seen him, can you wonder that I mean to marry him at once, whether you like it or not?’”

The words fell on a silence which Boyne, for the moment, found it impossible to break. Mrs. Sellars stood by her writing-table, her slender body leaning to him, her face lit with one of those gleams of lost youth which he had once found so exquisite and poignant. He found it so now, but with another poignancy.

“You mean — you mean — you’ve changed your mind about the date?” He broke off, the words “of our marriage” choking on his lips. Through a mist of bewilderment he saw the tender mockery of her smile, and knew how much courage it disguised. (“I stand here like a stock — what a brute she’ll think me!”)

“Did you imagine I was one of the dreadful women who never change their minds?” She came close, clasped her hands about his arm, lifted her delicate face, still alight with expectation. The face said: “Here I am: to be cherished or shattered — ” and he thought again of the glittering fragments he had seen at his feet the night before. He detached her hands, and lifted them, one after another, to his kiss. If only some word — if only the right word — would come to him!

“Martin — don’t you WANT me to change my mind?” she suddenly challenged him. He held her hands against his breast, caressing them.

“Dear, first of all, I don’t want to be the cause of you doing anything that might offend your aunt . . . that might interfere . . . in any way . . . with her views. . .” No; he couldn’t go on; the words strangled him. He was too sure that she was aware they did not express what he was thinking, were spoken only to gain time.

But with a gentle tenacity she pursued: “It’s awfully generous of you to think of that. But don’t you suppose, dear, I’ve been miserable at asking you to linger on here when I’ve always known that what you wanted was to be married at once, and get back to work? I’ve been imprisoned in my past — I see it now; I had become the slave of all those years of conformity you used to reproach me with. For a long time I couldn’t get out of their shadow. But you’ve opened my eyes — you’ve set me free. How monstrous to have waited so long for happiness, and then to be afraid to seize it when it comes!” Her arms stole up and drew him. “I’m not afraid now, Martin. You’ve taught me not to be. Henceforth I mean to think of you first, not of Aunt Julia. I mean to marry you as soon as it can be done. I don’t suppose the formalities take very long in Paris, do they? Then, as soon as we’re married, we’ll sail for home.”

He listened in a kind of stupor, saying inwardly: “It’s not that I love her less; it can’t be that I love her less. It’s only that everything that happens between us always seems to happen at the wrong time.”

The silence prolonged itself, on her side stretched and straining, on his built up like a wall, opaque, impenetrable. From beyond it came her little far-off laugh. “Dear, I’m utterly in your hands, you see!”

Evidently there had to be an answer to that. “Rose — ” he began. Pretty as her name was, he hardly ever called her by it; he had always felt her too close to him to need a name. She looked up in surprise.

He made a fresh start. “But you see, darling, how things are — ”

A little tremor ran across her face. “What things?”

“You know that, after you’d refused to consider the possibility of our getting married at once, I pledged myself. . .”

The tremor ceased, and her face once more became smooth and impenetrable. He found himself repeating to vacancy: “I pledged myself. . .”

She drew quietly away, and sat down at a little distance from him. “You’re talking about your odd experiment with the Wheater children?”

“It’s more than an experiment. When I saw the parents in Venice I told them, as you know, that I’d be responsible for the welfare of the children as long as they were left with me.”

“As long as they were left with you! For life, perhaps, then?” She leaned forward, her face drawn with the valiant effort of her smile. “Martin! Is all this serious? It can’t be! You can’t really be asking me to understand that all our plans — our whole future, yours and mine — are to depend, for an indefinite length of time, on the whim of two or three chance acquaintances of yours who are too heartless and self-engrossed to look after their own children!”

Boyne paused a moment; then he said: “We had no plans — I mean, no immediate plans — when I entered into the arrangement. It was by your own choice that — ”

“My own choice! Well, then, my own choice, now, is that we should have plans, immediately.” She stood up, trembling a little. She was very pale, and her thin eyebrows drew a straight black bar across her forehead. “Martin — I ask you to come with me at once to Paris.”

“At once? But just now you said in a week or two — ”

“And now I say at once: to-morrow.”

He stood leaning against the chimney, as far from her as the little room allowed. A tide of resistance rose in him. “I can’t come tomorrow.”

He was conscious that she was making an intense effort to steady her quivering nerves. “Martin . . . I don’t want to be unreasonable. . .”

“You’re never unreasonable,” he said patiently.

“You mean it might have been better if I were!” she flashed back, crimsoning.

“Don’t be — now,” he pleaded.

“No.” She paused. “Very well. Come to Paris in a few days, then.”

“Look here, dear — all this is of no use. No earthly use. I can’t come in a few days, any more than I can come to-morrow. I can’t desert these children till their future is settled in one way or another. I’ve said I’d stick to them, and I mean to. If I turned my back on them now they’d lose their last chance of being able to stay together.”

She received this with bent head and hands clasped stiffly across her knee; but suddenly her self-control broke down. “But, Martin, are you mad? What business is it of yours, anyhow, what becomes of these children?”

“I don’t know,” he said simply.

“You don’t know — you don’t know?”

“No; I only feel it’s got to be. I’m pledged. I can’t get round it.”

“You can’t get round it because you don’t want to. You’re pledged because you want to be. You want to be because Mr. Dobree was right . . . because. . .”

“Rose, take care,” he interrupted, very low.

“Take care? At this hour? Of what? For whom? All I care for is to know the truth. . .”

“I’m telling you the truth.”

“You may think you are. But the truth is something very different — something you’re not conscious of yourself, perhaps . . . not clearly. . .”

“I believe I’m telling you the whole truth.”

“That when I ask you to choose between me and the Wheater children, you choose the Wheater children — out of philanthropy?”

“I didn’t say out of philanthropy. I said I didn’t know. . .”

“If you don’t know, I do. You’re in love with Judith Wheater, and you’re trying to persuade yourself that you’re still in love with me.”

He lifted his hands to his face, and covered his eyes, as if from some intolerable vision she had summoned to them. “Don’t Rose, for the Lord’s sake . . . Don’t let’s say stupid things — ”

“But, dear, I must.” She got up and came close to him again; he felt her hands on his arm. “Listen, Martin. I love you too much not to want to help you. Try to feel that about me, won’t you? Then everything will be so much easier.”

“Yes.”

“Try to understand your own feelings — that’s the best way of sparing mine. I want the truth, that’s all. Try to see the truth, and face it with me — it’s all I ask.”

He dropped his hands, and turned his discouraged eyes on her. But he could only feel that he and she were farther apart than when he had last looked at her; all the rest was confusion and obscurity.

“I don’t know what the truth, as you call it, is; I swear I don’t; but I know it’s not what you think. Judith’s as much a child to me as the others — that I swear to you.”

“Then, dear — ”

“Then, I’ve got to stick to them all the same,” he repeated doggedly.

For a time the two continued to stand in silence, with eyes averted, like people straining to catch some far-off sound which will signal relief from a pressing peril. Then, slowly, Boyne turned to Mrs. Sellars. His eyes rested on her profile, so thin, drawn, bloodless, that a fresh pang shot through him. He had often mocked at himself as a man who, in spite of all his wanderings, had never had a real adventure; but now he saw that he himself had been one, had been Rose Sellars’s Great Adventure, the risk and the enchantment of her life. While she had continued, during the weary years of her marriage, to be blameless, exemplary, patient and heroically gay, the thought of Boyne was storing up treasures for her which she would one day put out her hand and take — no matter how long she might have to wait. Her patience, Boyne knew, was endless — it was as long as her hair. She had trained herself to go on waiting for happiness, day after day, month after month, year after year, with the same air of bright unruffled vigilance, like a tireless animal waiting for its prey. One day her prey, her happiness, would appear, and she would snap it up; and on that day there would be no escape from her. . .

It was terrible, it was hideous, to be picturing her distress as something grasping and predatory; it was more painful still to be entering so acutely into her feelings while a central numbness paralysed his own. All around this numbness there was a great margin of pity and of comprehension; but he knew this was not the region by way of which he could reach her. She who had always lived the life of reason would never forgive him if he called upon her reason now. . .

“Rose — ” he appealed to her.

She turned and he saw her face, composed, remodelled, suffused with a brilliancy like winter starlight. Her lips formed a smiling: “Dear?”

“Rose — ”

She took his hand with the lightest pressure. “Dearest, what utter nonsense we’ve both been talking! Of course I don’t mean that you’re to desert the Wheater children for me — and of course you don’t mean that you’re to desert me for them; do you? I believe I understand all you feel; all your fondness for the poor little things. I should shiver at you if you hadn’t grown to love them! But you and I have managed to get each other all on edge, I don’t know how. Don’t you feel what a mistake it would be to go in and out of this question any longer? I have an idea I could find a solution almost at once, if only I weren’t trying to so hard. And so could you, no doubt.” She paused, a little breathlessly, and then resumed her eager monologue. “Let’s say goodbye till tomorrow, shall we? — and produce our respective plans of action when we meet again. And don’t forget that the problem may solve itself without regard to us, and at any minute.”

She had caught at the last splinter of the rock of Reason still visible above the flood; and there she clung, dauntless, unbeaten, uttering the right, the impartial word with lips that pined and withered for his kiss. . .

“Oh, my dear,” he murmured.

“To-morrow?”

“Yes — to-morrow.”

Before he could take her in his arms she had slipped out of reach, and softly, adroitly closed the door on him. Alone on the landing he was left with the sense that that deft gesture had shut him up with her forever.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/children/chapter22.html

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