The Children, by Edith Wharton

XXIV

Uninterrupted communion with the little Wheaters always gave Boyne the same feeling of liberation. It was like getting back from a constrained bodily position into a natural one. This sense of being himself, being simply and utterly at his ease, which the children’s companionship had given him during the Mediterranean voyage, but which he had enjoyed only in uncertain snatches since their arrival at Cortina, came back to him as soon as he had slipped his chair between Judith’s and Blanca’s at the lunch-table. He would not ascribe it to her having gone, but preferred to think it was because her going left him free to dispose of himself as he chose. And what he chose was, on the spot, to resume his half~fatherly attitude toward the group, and devote every moment of his time to them.

Being with them again was like getting home after a long and precarious journey during which he had been without news of the people he loved. A great many things must have happened in the interval, and not a moment must be lost in gathering up the threads. There were, in fact, many threads to be gathered. He got a general outline of the situation that very evening from Miss Scope — learned that Terry’s health was steadily improving, that the young Swiss tutor whom Boyne had unearthed at Botzen was conscientious and kind, and got on well with Terry, but found Bun hopelessly unmanageable (“And nothing new in that,” Miss Scope commented); that on the whole the three little girls, Blanca, Zinnie and Beechy, though trying at times, were behaving better than could have been hoped, considering the unusual length of their holiday; and lastly that Chipstone, even in the process of cutting a new tooth, retained his rosy serenity, and had added a pound or more to his weight.

All this was as absorbing to Boyne as if every one concerned had been of the highest interest and consequence. He had a long talk with the tutor, went carefully into the question of Terry’s studies, suggested a few changes, and encouraged and counselled the young man. As to luring or coercing Bun up the steep way of knowledge, a stronger hand would be needed; and while Bun ranged unchecked there was not much to be done with the little girls. Even Blanca, though she felt herself so superior in age and culture, found the company of her juniors tolerable, and their bad example irresistible, when there was nothing better going. But, as against these drawbacks, there was the happy fact that the high air, which had done all the children good, had transformed Terry from a partial invalid into a joyous active boy who laughed at temperatures and clamoured for second helpings. And so far the Lido had refrained from interfering. On the whole, therefore, as the weeks passed, Boyne had more and more reason to be satisfied with his achievement. To give the children a couple of months of security, with the growing hope of keeping them all together under old Mrs. Mervin’s roof, had assuredly been worth trying for. The evening after Mrs. Sellars’s departure he wrote a long letter to Grandma Mervin.

Boyne, once more alone with the children, found that his confused feeling about Judith had given way to the frank elder-brotherly affection he had felt for her on the cruise. Perhaps because she herself had become natural and simple, now that there were no older people to put her on the defensive, she seemed again the buoyant child who had first captivated him. Or perhaps his thinking so was just a part of his satisfaction at being with his flock again, unobserved and uncriticised by the grown up. He and they understood each other; he suspected that, even had their plight not roused his pity, his own restlessness and impulsiveness would have fraternized with theirs. “The fact is, we’re none of us grown up,” he reflected, hugging himself for being on the children’s side of the eternal barrier.

His talks with Judith turned, as usual, on the future of the children. He sometimes tried to draw from her the expression of a personal preference; but she seemed to want nothing for herself; she could not detach herself, even in imagination, from the others. For them she had fabulous dreams and ambitions. If only they could keep together till they were grown up! She had a quaint vision of their all living in a house somewhere in the country (perhaps her father would buy them one when she came of age); a house which should be always full of pets and birds; and leading there a life in which the amusements of the nursery were delightfully combined with grown up pursuits. And for each of the children she had thought out a definite career. Blanca, of course, was to be “lovely”: to Judith loveliness was a vocation. Terry was to be a great scholar, the guide and counsellor of the others — she had a savage reverence for the wisdom and authority to be acquired from books. Bun was manifestly meant to drive racing-motors, and carry off championships in games and athletics; Beechy would marry and have heaps of children, yet somehow be always able to look after Bun; and Zinnie — well, Zinnie was undoubtedly predestined to be “clever”; a fate of dubious import. But Judith hoped it would not be with the sharp cunning of little Pixie Lullmer, who seemed so childish and simple, and was really an abyss of precocious knowledge, initiated into all the secrets of hotel life; a toad of a child, Judith summed it up, whereas her poor half-sister, Doll Westway, had hated it all so much that she had taken the shortest way out by shooting herself. . .

Ah — and Chipstone! Well, there was no hurry about Chipstone, was there? But he was so large and calm, and so certain to get what he wanted, that Judith thought perhaps he would be a banker — and own a big yacht, and take them all on wonderful cruises. And Nanny and Susan would of course always stay with them, to look after Beechy’s children. . .

Boyne had decided to write to old Mrs. Mervin without mentioning the fact to Judith. He had meant to consult her, had even intended to have a talk with her on the day when Mrs. Sellars’s abrupt departure had momentarily unsettled his plans; but when the idea recurred to him Judith was already re-established in his mind as the blithe creature of their first encounter, and he had a superstitious dread of doing anything to change the harmony of their relation. After all, he could plead the children’s cause with their grandmother as well as Judith could; and if his appeal were doomed to failure she need never know it had been made. He found himself insisting rather elaborately, in his own mind, on the childishness he was fond of ascribing to her when he talked of her to others; and now he feared lest anything should break through that necessary illusion. In his letter to Mrs. Mervin he tried to combine the maximum of conciseness and of eloquence, and ended by reminding her that the various parents might intervene at any moment, and begging her to cable at once if, as he earnestly hoped, she could give her assent to the plan. The sending off of the letter was like handing in an essay at school; with its completion he seemed entering with the children on a new holiday. “Two or three weeks’ respite, anyhow; and then,” he thought, “who knows? I may be able to carry them all back to New York with me.” Incredible as it was, he clung to the hope with a faith as childish as Judith’s.

Mrs. Sellars had said that she would write in a few days. Instead, she telegraphed to announce her arrival in Paris, and again, a little later, to inform Boyne of Aunt Julia’s. To each message she added a few words of tender greeting; but ten days or more elapsed before the telegrams were followed by a letter.

Boyne found it one evening, on his return from a long expedition with the children. He had ceased, after a day or two, to speculate on Mrs. Sellars’s silence, had gradually, as the days passed, become unconscious of their flight, and was almost surprised, when he saw her handwriting, that a letter from Paris should have reached Cortina so quickly. He waited till after dinner to read it, secretly wishing to keep the flavour of the present on his lips. Then, when the task could no longer be postponed, he withdrew to the melancholy lounge, and settled himself in the same slippery chair in which he had sat when he read the letter of the engineers asking if he could trace the whereabouts of the young man to whom they wanted to offer a job. “It’s to say she’s coming back,” he muttered to himself as he broke the seal. But Mrs. Sellars did not say that.

The letter was one of her best — tender, gay and amusing. The description of Aunt Julia’s arrival was a little masterpiece. The writer dwelt at length on the arts she had exercised — was still exercising — to persuade the family tyrant that he, Boyne, was justified in wishing for an immediate marriage, and she added, on a note of modest triumph, that success was already in sight. “But even if it were not, dear,” the letter pursued, “I shouldn’t allow that to alter my plans — our plans — and I’m prepared to have you carry me off under Aunt Julia’s nose (formidable though that feature is), if she should refuse her sanction. But she won’t; and the important question is what we intend to do, and not what she may think about it.”

At this stage Boyne laid the letter aside, took out a cigar, cut it, and put it down without remembering to light it. He took up the letter again.

“But it’s more important still that we should come to a clear understanding about our future — isn’t it, dearest? I feel that I made such an understanding impossible the other day by my unreasonableness, my impatience, my apparent inability to see your point of view. But I did see it, even then; and I see it much more clearly now that I have studied the question at a sufficient distance to focus it properly. Of course we both know that, whatever decision we reach, some of the numerous papas and mammas of your little friends may upset it at a moment’s notice; but meanwhile I have a plan to propose. What you want — isn’t it? — is to guard these poor children as long as possible from the unsettling and demoralising influence of continual change. I quite see your idea; and it seems to me that those most exposed to such risks are the ones we ought to try to help. By your own showing, Mr. Wheater will never give up Chipstone for long; Zinnie, and Prince Buondelmonte’s funny little pair, are bound to be claimed by their respective parents now that they have settled down to wealth and domesticity. As for the enchanting Judith, though you persist in not seeing it, she will be grown up and married in a year or two; and meanwhile, if the Wheaters do divorce, she will probably choose to remain with her mother, as she did before. The twins, in fact, seem to me the chief victims. They are old enough to understand what is going on, and not old enough to make themselves lives of their own; and above all they are at an age when disintegrating influences are likely to do the most harm. You have often told me that poor Terry’s health has been an obstacle between him and his father (what a horrible idea that it should be so!), and that the bouncing Chip has cut him out. Terry needs care and sympathy more than any of them; and I am sure you will feel, as I do, that it would be unthinkable to separate dear little Blanca from the brother she adores. What I propose, then, is that you should ask Mr. and Mrs. Wheater to give up the twins — regarding us in any capacity you like, either as their friends, or as their legal guardians, if that is better — till they come of age. I will gladly take a share in looking after them, and I believe that between us we can turn them into happy useful members of society. If you agree, I am ready to — ”

Boyne stopped reading, folded up the letter and thrust it into his pocket. There rushed over him a wave of disappointment and disgust. “Dear little Blanca indeed!” he muttered furiously. “Useful members of society!” That Mrs. Sellars should calmly propose to separate the children was bad enough; but that, of the lot, she should choose to foist on him the only one he could feel no affection for, and hardly any interest in — that to the woman he was going to marry Blanca should alone seem worthy of compassion among the four little girls who had been cast upon his mercy, this was to Boyne hatefully significant of the side of Mrs. Sellars’s character to which, from the moment of their reunion, he had been trying to close his eyes. “She chooses her because she knows she need never be jealous of her,” was his inmost thought.

Well, and supposing it were so — how womanly, how human, after all! Loving Boyne as she did, was it not natural that she should prefer to have under her roof the two children least likely to come between herself and him, to interfere in any way with their happiness? Yes — but was that loving him at all? If she had really loved him would she not have entered into his feeling about the little group, and recognised the cruelty of separating them? He paused a moment over this, and tried conscientiously to imagine what, in a similar case, his love for her would have inspired him to do. Would it, for instance, ever induce him to live with Aunt Julia as a dependent nephew-in-law? A million times no! But why propound such useless riddles? No one could pretend that the cases were similar. Rose Sellars would simply be asking him to gratify a whim; what he was asking of her was vital, inevitable. She knew that it lay with him, and with no one else, to save these children; she knew that, little by little, his whole heart had gone into the task. Yet coolly, deliberately, with that infernal air she had of thinking away whatever it was inconvenient to admit, she had affected to sympathise with his purpose while in reality her proposal ignored it. Send back the younger children to their parents — to such parents as Zinnia Lacrosse and Buondelmonte! — return Judith to her mother, to a mother about to marry Gerald Ormerod, who, by Judith’s own showing, would have preferred herself? Boyne recoiled from the thought as from the sight of some physical cruelty he could not prevent. He got up, threw away his cigar, and went out hatless, indignant, into the night.

The air was warm, the sky full of clouds tunnelled by shifting vistas of a remote blue sprinkled with stars. Boyne groped his way down the obscure wood-path from his hotel, and walked across the fields to the slopes which Judith and he had climbed on the day of his return from the Lido. It was from that day — he recalled it now — that Rose Sellars’s jealousy of Judith had dated; he had seen it flash across her fixed attentive face when, the next morning, Judith had blurted out an allusion to their ramble. Boyne — he also remembered! — had given Mrs. Sellars to understand that on that occasion he had gone off for a walk by himself, “to get the Lido out of his lungs”; very likely his prevarication had first excited her suspicion. For why should he dissemble the fact that he had been with Judith, if Judith was only a child to him, as he said? Why indeed? It seemed as though, in concealing so significant a fact, he had simply, unconsciously, been on his guard against this long-suspected jealousy; as if he had always guessed that the most passionate and irrational of sentiments lurked under Mrs. Sellars’s calm and reasonable exterior. If it were so, it certainly made her more interesting — but also less easy to deal with. For jealousy, to excite sympathy, must be felt by some one who also inspires it. Shared, it was a part of love; unshared, it made love impossible. And Boyne, in his fatuous security, could not imagine feeling jealous of Mrs. Sellars. “Though of course I should hate it like anything, I suppose. . .” But the problem was one that he could only apprehend intellectually.

He tramped on through the summer night, his mind full of tormented thoughts; and as he groped upward among the pines he remembered that other night, not many weeks since, when he had climbed the same path, and his feet had seemed winged, and the air elixir, because a girl’s shoulder brushed his own, and he listened to unpremeditated laughter.

It was so late when he got back to the hotel that the porter, unwillingly roused, looked at him with a sulky astonishment.

“There was a lady here — she left a parcel for you.”

“A lady? Where’s the parcel?”

“Up in your room. I had to help her to carry it up. It was awkward getting it round the turn of the stairs. She left a letter for you too.”

Awkward round the turn of the stairs? What on earth could the object be, and who the lady? Boyne, without farther questions, sprang up to his room. Rose had come back — there could be no doubt of it. She had decided, adroitly enough, to follow up her letter by the persuasion of her presence. At the thought he felt flurried, unsettled, as if she had come too soon, before he had set his mind in order to receive her.

And what could she possibly have brought him that had to be manoeuvred up the hotel stairs? Whatever it was, he could not, try as he would, figure her labouring up to his room with it, even with the assistance of the porter. Why, she had never even been to his room, the room with every chair and table of which Judith and the other children were so carelessly familiar! It was utterly unlike Rose — and yet Rose of course it must be. . .

He flung open his door, and saw a large shrouded object in the middle of the floor; an object of odd uncertain shape, imperfectly wrapped in torn newspapers tied with string. The wrappings yielded to a pull, and an ancient walnut cradle with primitive carven ornaments revealed itself to his petrified gaze. A cradle! He threw himself into a chair and stared at it incredulously, as if he knew it must be an hallucination. At length he remembered the porter’s having mentioned a letter, and his glance strayed to his chest of drawers. There, perched on the pincushion, was an envelope addressed in a precise familiar hand — the hand of Terry Wheater, always the scribe of the other children when their letters were to be subjected to grown up criticism. Boyne tore the envelope open and read:

“Darling Martin,

“We are all of us sending you this lovely cradle for your wedding present because we suppose you are going to be married very soon, as we think Mrs. Sellars has gone to Paris to order her trousseau. And because you have been like a father to us we hope and pray you will soon be a real father to a lot of lovely little children of your own, and they will all sleep in this cradle, and then you will think of

Your loving Judith, Terry, Blanca — ”

Under the last of the rudimentary signatures, Chipstone had scrawled his mark; and below it was a scribbled postscript from Judith: “Darling, I open this while Terry’s not looking to say he said we oughternt to call the craidle lovely, but it is lovely and we wanted you to know it was. Judith.”

In the midnight silence Boyne sat and laughed and laughed until a nervous spinster in the next room banged on the wall and called out venomously: “I can hear every word you’re both saying.”

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