The Children, by Edith Wharton

XXIII

It was growing more and more evident to Boyne that he could recover his old vision of Mrs. Sellars only when they were apart. He began to think this must be due to his having loved her so long from a distance, having somehow, in consequence of their separation, established with her an ideal relation to which her slightest misapprehension, her least failure to say just what he expected, was a recurring menace.

At first the surprise of finding her, after his long absence, so much younger and more vivid than his remembrance, the glow of long~imagined caresses, the whole enchanting harmony of her presence, had hushed the inner discord. But though she was dearer to him than ever, all free communication seemed to have ceased between them — he could regain it only during those imaginary conversations in which it was he who sustained both sides of the dialogue.

This was what happened when he had walked off the pain and bewilderment of their last talk. For two hours he tramped the heights, unhappy, confused, struggling between the sense of her unreasonableness and of his own predicament; then gradually there stole back on him the serenity always associated with the silent sessions of his thought and hers. On what seemed to him the fundamental issues — questions of fairness, kindness, human charity in the widest meaning — when had she ever failed him in these wordless talks? His position with regard to the Wheater children (hadn’t he admitted it to her?) was unreasonable, indefensible, was whatever else she chose to call it; yes, but it was also human, and that would touch her in the end. He had no doubt that when they met the next day she would have her little solution ready, and be prepared to smile with him over their needless perturbation.

The thought of her deep submissive passion, which contrasted so sharply with his own uneasy self-assertiveness, was the only anxiety that remained with him. He knew now how much she loved him — but did he know how much he loved her? Supposing, for instance, that on getting back to his hotel, now, this very evening, he should find a line telling him that she had decided for both their sakes to break their engagement: well, could he honestly say that it would darken earth and heaven for him? Mortified, hurt, at a loose end — all this he would be; already the tender flesh of his vanity was shrinking, and under it he felt the thrust of wounded affection. But that was all — in the balance how little!

He got back late to the hotel, and walked unheedingly past the letter-rack toward which, at that hour, it was usual to glance for the evening mail. The porter called to him, waving a letter. The envelope bore the New York post-mark, and in the upper corner Boyne recognised the name of the big firm of contracting engineers to whom he had owed some of his most important jobs. They still wrote now and then to consult him: no doubt this letter, which had been forwarded by his London bankers, was of that nature. He pushed it into his pocket, deciding to read it after he had dined. And then he proceeded to dine, alone in a corner of the unfashionable restaurant of his hotel, of which the tables with their thick crockery and clumsy water-carafes seemed like homely fragments of a recently-disjoined table d’hôte, the long old-fashioned hotel table at which travellers used to be seated in his parents’ day. A coarse roll lay by his plate, the table bore a bunch of half-faded purply-pink cosmos in an opaque blue vase: everything about him was ugly and impersonal, yet he hugged himself for not being at the châlet table, with its air of exquisite rusticity, its bowl of cunningly-disposed wild flowers, the shaded candles, the amusing food. Yes; and he was glad, too, not to be sharing the little Wheaters’ pudding at the Pension Rosenglüh; he was suddenly aware of an intense unexpected satisfaction in being for once alone, his own master, with no one that he need be on his guard against or at his best before; no one to be tormented or enchanted by, no one to listen to and answer. “Decidedly, I’m a savage,” he thought, emptying his plateful of savourless soup with an appetite he was almost ashamed of. The moral of it, obviously, was that he had been idle too long, that what he was thirsting for at this very moment was not more rest but more work, and that the idea of giving up his life of rough and toilsome activity for the security of an office in New York, as he had aspired to do a few short months ago, now seemed intolerable. Too old for the fatigue and hardships of an engineer’s life? Why, it was the fatigues and the hardships which, physically speaking, had given the work its zest, just as the delicate mathematical calculations had provided its intellectual stimulus. The combination of two such sources of interest, so rare in other professions, was apparently what he needed to keep him straight, curb his excitable imagination, discipline his nerves, and make him wake up every morning to a steady imperturbable view of life. After dinner, sitting in the dreary little lounge, as he lit his pipe and pulled the letter from his pocket he thought: “I wish to God it was an order to start for Tierra del Fuego!”

It was nothing of the sort, of course: merely an inquiry for the address of a young engineer who had been Boyne’s assistant a few years earlier, and whom the firm in question had lost sight of. They had been struck with Boyne’s estimate of the young man’s ability, and thought they might have an interesting piece of work for him, if he happened to be available, and was not scared by hardships and responsibility. Boyne put the letter into his pocket, leaned back in his chair, and thought: “God! I wish I was his age and just starting — for anywhere.”

His mind turned round and round this thought for the rest of the evening. Perhaps he could make Mrs. Sellars understand that, after all, he had made a mistake in supposing he had reached the age for sedentary labours. Once they were married she would surely see that, for his soul’s sake, and until the remainder of his youth was used up, she must let him go off on these remote exciting expeditions which seemed the only cure for — for what? Well, for the creeping grayness of age, no doubt. The fear of that must be what ailed him. At any rate he must get away; he must. As soon as the fate of the little Wheaters was decided, and he and Rose were married, and he had established her in New York, he must get back into the glorious soul-releasing world of girders and abutments, of working stresses, curvatures and grades.

She had talked of having her little plan ready for him the next day. Well, he would have one for her, at any rate; this big comprehensive one. First, the Wheater tribe transplanted (he didn’t yet see how) to the safe shelter of Grandma Mervin’s wing; then his own marriage; then — flight! He worked himself into a glow of eloquence, as he always did in these one-sided talks, which never failed to end in convincing Mrs. Sellars because he unconsciously eliminated from them all the objections she might possibly have raised . . . He went to bed with a sense of fresh air in his soul, as if the mere vision of escape had freed him. . .

Mrs. Sellars had not said at what hour she expected him the next day; so he decided to wait till lunch, and drop in on her then, as his habit was when they had no particular expedition in view. In the morning he usually strolled down to see how the Rosenglüh refugees were getting on; but on this occasion he left them to themselves, and did not go out till he made for the châlet. As he approached it he was startled by a queer sense of something impending. Oh, not another “scene”; Rose was much too intelligent for that. What he felt was just an uneasy qualm, as if the new air in his soul’s lungs were being gradually pumped out of them again. He glanced up at the balcony, lifting his hand to signal to her; but she was not there. He pushed open the hall door and ran up the short flight of stairs. The little sitting-room was empty: it looked speckless and orderly as a tomb. He noticed at once that the littered writing-table was swept and garnished, and that no scent of viands greeted him through the dining-room door.

She had gone — he became suddenly sure that she had gone. But why? But when? Above all, why without a word? It was so unlike her to do anything abrupt and unaccountable that his vague sense of apprehension returned.

He sat down in the armchair he always occupied, as if the familiar act must re-evoke her, call her back into the seat opposite, in the spirit if not in the flesh. But the room remained disconcertingly, remained even spiritually empty. He had the sense that she had gone indeed, and had taken her soul with her; and the discovery made a queer unexpected void in him. “This is — absurd!” he heard himself exclaiming.

“Rose!” he called out; there was no answer. He stood up, and his wandering eye travelled from the table to the mantelpiece. On its shelf he saw a letter addressed to himself. He seized it and tore it open; and all at once the accents of the writer’s reasonableness floated out into the jangled air of the little room.

“Dearest — After you left yesterday I had a radio from Aunt Julia, asking me to get to Paris as soon as I could, so I decided to motor over to Padua this morning, and catch the Orient Express. And I mean to slip off like this, without seeing you, or even letting you know that I’m going, because, on second thoughts, I believe my little plan (you know I promised you one) will be all the better for a day or two more of quiet thought; so I’ll simply write it to you from Paris instead of talking it to you hurriedly this morning.

“Besides (I’ll confess) I want to keep the picture of our happiness here intact, not frayed and rubbed by more discussion, even the friendliest. You’ll understand, I know. This being together has been something so complete, so exquisite, that I want to carry it away with me in its perfection . . . I’ll write in a few days. Till then, if you can, think of me as I think of you. No heart could ask more of another. Rose.”

He sat down again, and read the letter over two or three times. It was sweet and reasonable — but it was also desperately sad. Yes; she had understood that for a time it was best for both that they should be apart. And this was her way of putting it to him. His eyes filled, and he wondered how he could have thought, the night before, that if he suddenly heard she was leaving it would be a relief. . .

But presently he began to visualise what the day would have been if he had found her there, and they had now been sitting over the lunch-table, “fraying and rubbing” their happiness, as she had put it, by more discussion — useless discussion. How intelligent of her to go — how merciful! Yes; he would think of her as she thought of him; he could now, without a shadow of reserve. He would bless her in all honesty for this respite. . .

He took a fading mountain-pink from one of the vases on the mantelpiece, put it in his pocket-book with her letter, and started to walk down to the village to send her a telegram. As he walked, he composed it, affectionately, lingeringly. He moved fast through the brisk air, and by the time he had reached the foot of the hill a pang of wholesome hunger reminded him that he had not lunched. Straight ahead, the Pension Rosenglüh lay in his path, and he knew that, even if the little Wheaters had finished their midday meal, Miss Scope would persuade the cook to conjure up an omelette for him. . .

Instantly he felt a sort of boyish excitement at the idea of surprising the party; and finding the front door unlatched, he crossed the hall and entered the private dining-room which had been assigned to them since the arrival of adult boarders less partial than himself to what Judith called the children’s “dinner-roar.”

His appearance was welcomed with a vocal vigour which must have made the crockery dance even in the grown-up Speise-saal across the hall. “Have the wild animals left a morsel for me?” he asked, and gaily wedged himself in between Judith and Blanca.

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