The Children, by Edith Wharton

Book IV

XXV

Boyne had been wrong in imagining that Mrs. Sellars might come back unannounced to assure herself of the effect of her letter. She did not do so; and after two days he decided that he could no longer put off sending some kind of answer.

Only, what could he say?

Being with the children all day and every day, sharing their meals, their games and scrambles, had gradually detached his thoughts from Mrs. Sellars, reducing her once more to the lovely shadow she had so long been; with the difference that she was now a shadow irrevocably, whereas before he had always believed she might become substantial. Finally he girt himself to the task; and at once his irritation, his impatience, seemed to materialise her again, as if she were fated to grow real only when she thwarted or opposed him. He wondered if that were another of the peculiarities of being in love. “People get too close to each other — they can’t see each other for the nearness, I suppose,” he reflected, not altogether satisfied with this explanation. He wrote: “And as to what you propose about the children, do please believe that I don’t mean to be unreasonable — but, unless I’m a little mad, your suggestion apparently amounts to this: that I should shove them straight back into the hell I’ve temporarily got them out of. For them that hell, at least the worst of it, is being separated from each other; and you ask me to separate them, when to keep them together is the one thing that they and I have been fighting for. I make no comment on your proposal to hand over the younger ones to Lady Wrench and Buondelmonte; women like you are what they are at the price of not being able even to picture such people as those two. But I know what they are, and never, as long as I can help it, will I be a party to giving back into such hands these children who have trusted me. And when you say that Judith, thanks to whom the younger ones have developed a sense of solidarity and mutual trust in a world which is the very negation of such feelings — that Judith should be asked to see her work deliberately wrecked, and all the feelings she has cultivated in the others trampled on — ” He broke off, flung down the pen, and sat hopelessly staring at what he had written. “Oh, hell — that’s no use,” he groaned.

The truth was that, even in his most rebellious moments, he could not trick himself into the idea that he had a grievance against Mrs. Sellars. In reality it was the other way round. When he had gone to Venice to negotiate with the Wheaters about the future of their mutinous family he had gone as an affianced man. In pledging himself to his strange guardianship he had virtually pledged Mrs. Sellars also, and without even making his promise depend on her consent. He had simply assumed that because she loved him she would approve of whatever he did, would accept any situation he chose to put her in. He had behaved, in short, like a romantic boy betrothed to a dreamer of his own age. All this was true, and it was true also that Mrs. Sellars had never reproached him with it. The sense of her magnanimity deprived his argument of all its force, and benumbed his angry pen. He pushed away the letter, pulled out another sheet, and scrawled on it: “Awfully sorry but cannot undo what I have done do try to understand me dearest.”

Yes, a telegram was better: easier to write, at any rate . . . He tore up the letter, put on his hat, and walked down to the post~office with his message.

For its answer he had only twenty-four hours to wait; and when Mrs. Sellars’s telegram came it merely said: “I do understand you letter follows. . .” Well, that was not unsatisfactory, as far as it went; but when two days more had elapsed, it was not a letter but a small registered packet which the postman put into Boyne’s hands. Even in the act of signing the receipt, at his very first glance, he had guessed what the packet contained. He went up to his room, a little dizzy with the abruptness of the event, and angrily ripped off seal and string, revealing the morocco box he had expected to find there. For a minute or two he sat looking at the box, almost as unconscious of what he was feeling as a man in the first minute or two after being stabbed or shot. “So that’s that,” he said aloud. But what “that” was going to be he had as yet no notion. It was a wound, of course — but was it mortal? He didn’t know. Suddenly, with a mumbled curse at his own plight, he snapped the box open and saw a thin slip of paper twisted about the sapphire ring. On the paper he read: “I shall always remember; I shall never resent; and that is why I want you to give this to some woman who can make you as happy as you have made me.” He pitched the box and the paper aside, and hid his face in his hands. After all he must have loved her, he supposed — or at least the vision of her which their long separation had created. . .

He was roused by a knock, and looking up with dazed eyes saw Judith Wheater standing doubtfully on the threshold.

“Oh, Martin dear — were you asleep, or have you got one of those beastly headaches?” She came in and closed the door without waiting for his answer. “Have I disturbed you most awfully?” she questioned, passing her cool hand softly over his hair.

“Yes — no.” He wondered whether her sharp eyes had already detected the open ring-box, and the paper signed with Rose’s name. But to try to conceal them would only attract her attention. He put up his hand and pressed hers. “Yes — I believe I have got a beastly headache,” he said.

“Then I’d better be off, perhaps?” she interrupted reluctantly. She was bending over him with the look she had when one of the children fell and scraped a knee, and Boyne could not help smiling up into her anxious eyes. “That depends on what you came for. What’s up? Anything wrong at Rosenglüh?”

“Not particularly. But, you know, dear, we haven’t seen you for two whole days. . .”

“You haven’t?” In the struggle which had been going on in his mind since he had received Mrs. Sellars’s letter he had completely forgotten the passage of time. “No more you have,” he exclaimed. “I didn’t realise I’d neglected you all so shamefully. Fact is, I’ve been tied up to a boring piece of business that I had to get off my chest. Sit down and have a cigarette.” He fumbled for a box, and shoved it across the table to Judith, who had settled down comfortably into his only armchair. “Oh, Martin, how lovely to be here all alone with you!”

“Well, I don’t believe you’ll find me particularly good company,” he rejoined, suddenly conscious of the ears of the acrimonious spinster next door, and wondering if he ought not to propose to Judith to finish her visit in the garden.

“Oh, yes, I shall, if you’ll let me talk to you,” she declared with her rich candour; and Boyne laughed in spite of himself.

“I’ve never been able to prevent your talking when you wanted to,” he remarked, lighting a cigarette; and Judith thrust her thin shoulder-blades into the chair-back, crossed her legs, and sighed contentedly: “Few can.”

“Well, then — what’s your news?”

“A letter from mother, this morning.”

The laugh died on Boyne’s lips. The expected menace — here it was! He knew Joyce never wrote unless she had news of overwhelming importance, and usually of a disagreeable nature, to impart. “What does she say?” he asked apprehensively.

“Not much. I can’t quite make out. She just says she’s given up Gerald, and that she realises for the first time what a rotten rubbishy life she’s been leading, and wants us all to forgive her for it.”

“She DOES? But then —?”

Judith shrugged away his anticipations with a faint smile. “Oh, that’s not particularly new. Mother always realises about the rottenness of her life when she’s going to make a change.”

“A change? What sort of a change?”

“Getting engaged to somebody else, generally.”

“Oh, come, my dear! Why shouldn’t it mean, this time, just what I’ve always hoped: that your father and mother see they can’t get on without you — all of you — and that they’re going to patch it up for good and all?”

Judith scanned him half-humorously through the veil of her cigarette-smoke. “Like in the nicer kind of movies?”

“You young sceptic, you! Why not? Your mother’s too intelligent not to be fed up with jazz some day — ”

“That’s what she says. She says she’s met somebody who’s opened her eyes to how wrong it all is — and that always means she’s going to get engaged again.” Boyne was silent, and Judith added: “Anyhow, she’s leaving at once for Paris to start divorce proceedings, because she says it’s too wicked to live any longer with a man like father.”

The load dropped from Boyne’s heart. If Mrs. Wheater was leaving for Paris without suggesting that the children should join her, it was at least a respite — how long a one he couldn’t guess, but at any rate enough to provide an excuse for deferring action. That was as far as his hopes dared venture. But he met Judith’s eyes, and was surprised at their untroubled serenity. “Aren’t you afraid —?” he began; and she rejoined immediately: “With you here? Why should we be?”

Immediately the sense of his responsibility descended on him with a redoubled weight. To have taken the risks he had for these children was mad enough; but to find that his doing so had deified him in their imagination, made them regard him as a sort of human sanctuary, turned his apprehensions to dismay.

“But, my child — look here. We’ve been awfully lucky so far; but we mustn’t forget that, any day, this arrangement of ours may go to smash. How can I prevent it?”

She gave him all her confidence in a radiant look. “You have till now, haven’t you? And if there’s another row, couldn’t we all nip over quietly to America with you?” She paused, and then began again, with a shade of hesitation that was new in her: “I suppose you’ll be married very soon now, won’t you, Martin? And when I got mother’s letter this morning we wondered — Terry and I wondered — whether, if Grandma Mervin is afraid to take us in, we couldn’t all go and live with you in New York, if we children paid a part of the rent? You see, father and mother couldn’t possibly object to that, and I know you and Mrs. Sellars are fond of Chip and the steps, and we big ones really wouldn’t be any trouble. Scopy and I have saved up such a lot out of father’s allowance that I daresay you could afford to take a biggish house; and we’d all be awfully decent in the morning about not keeping the bath a minute longer than we had a right to.”

The abruptness of Judith’s transitions from embittered shrewdness to nursery simplicity was always disconcerting. When ways and means had to be considered, the disenchanted maiden for whom life seemed to have no surprises became once more the helpless little girl in the hands of nurses and governesses. At such moments, Boyne thought, she was like a young Daphne, half emerging into reality, half caught in the foliage of fairyland.

“My dear child — ”

She always responded to every change in his intonation; and as he spoke he saw the shadow in her eyes before it reached her lips. Trying to keep a smile on them; she interrupted: “Now I’ve said something stupid again.”

“You’ve said something unexpected — that’s all. Give me a little time — ”

She sprang up, and moved toward him with one of her impulsive darts. “Martin! When people ask for time, it’s always for time to say no. Yes has one more letter in it, but it doesn’t take half as long to say. And now you’ll hate me for asking you something that you’ve got to take time to answer.”

“Not a bit of it. I want time because I’ve got several answers. And the first is: how do you know your Grandma Mervin won’t take you all in?”

She shook her head. “Because I wrote to her a month ago, and she’s taking time before she answers. And besides — really and truly — I’ve always known that if Grandma Mervin did take us in, she’d give us up again the minute father shouted loud enough. You see,” Judith added, with a sudden spring back to her wistful maturity, “grandma gets a big allowance from father.”

“All right; that brings me to my second answer. How do you know your father won’t order you back at once to the Lido — or wherever he is — if your mother has definitely decided to leave him?”

“Because father’s gone off to Constantinople on the yacht with Syb — Mrs. Lullmer, I mean — and a whole crowd of people.”

In spite of himself, Boyne again drew a breath of relief. If Wheater was off on the “Fancy Girl” with a band of cronies, and his wife rushing to Paris to start divorce proceedings, there might indeed be no need for an immediate decision. Never had procrastination seemed so sweet.

“Well, my dear, in that case it would appear that they’re both going to let you alone — for a while, at any rate. So why jump unnecessary ditches?”

Judith responded with a joyful laugh. “Who wants to, darling? I don’t! As long as you’re with us I always feel safe.” Again a little shiver of apprehension ran over Boyne; but he dissembled it by joining in her laugh. The more precarious was the tie between himself and the little Wheaters, the more precious seemed the days he could still hope to spend with them; he would not cloud another with vain fears. “Right you are. Suppose we go and do something desperate to celebrate the occasion? What about a good tramp for you and me, and then supper with the little Wheaters?”

She stood looking at him with her happiest eyes. “Hurrah, Martin! I haven’t seen you so jolly for days. Terry was afraid you were moping because Mrs. Sellars had gone — he thought that was why you hadn’t been to see us, and we decided that I’d better come up and find out.”

“Trust you to find out,” he grinned; and added sardonically: “I’m bearing up, as you see. But come along. Don’t let’s waste any more sunshine.”

She moved obediently toward the door, but stopped short half-way with an exclamation of surprise. Boyne, who was rummaging in a corner for his stick, turned about to see her standing before the ancient cradle.

“Oh, Martin, you — you keep your boots in it!” A reproachful flush rose to her face, and was momentarily reflected in his own. Hang it — why was he always such an untidy fellow? And why was a cradle so uncommonly handy to hold boots? “Jove — how stupid! Must have been that confounded chambermaid — ” But he broke off in confusion as he caught Judith’s incredulous eye. “Well, hang it, you know — I’ve nothing else to put in it just at present,” he cried defiantly.

Her face softened, and she met his banter with the wistful tentative gaze that he called her Monreale look. “But very soon you will have, won’t you? A baby of your own, I mean,” she explained. “I suppose you and Mrs. Sellars are going to be married as soon as she gets back with her trousseau, aren’t you? Blanca and I were wondering if perhaps she’d ask us to be bridesmaids. . .”

Boyne was flinging the boots out of the cradle with an angry hand, and made no answer to this suggestion. Judith stood and watched him for a few moments; then she went to his side and slipped her arm through his. “Why, Martin — I believe you’re very unhappy!” she exclaimed.

“Unhappy? Unhappy?” He swung around on her, exasperated. “Well, yes; I suppose I am unhappy. It’s a way people have, you know. But, for the Lord’s sake, can’t you ever let things be? Can’t you ever keep from treading on people’s toes? I— oh, damn it, Judy; look here, for God’s sake don’t cry! I didn’t mean to say anything to hurt you . . . I swear I didn’t . . . Only sometimes. . .”

“Oh, I know, I know — you mean I have no tact!” she wailed.

“Damn tact! I’m thankful you haven’t. There’s nothing I hate as much as tact. But here — don’t look so scared, child. There’s no harm done . . . only don’t try meddling with grown up things. It’ll just wreck everything if you do. . .”

“But how can I not meddle when I love you so, and when I see that things are going wrong for you? Martin,” she flung out breathlessly, “you don’t mean to say you’re not going to be married after all?”

Temptation suddenly twitched through him. It was as if saying “Yes” to her question might be the magic formula of freedom. After all, there lay the ring; he WAS free, technically — had only to utter the words to make them true. But he thrust his hands into his pockets and stood sullenly planted before the corner of the table on which he had tossed the open ring-box. “Not in this way,” he thought. Aloud he said: “I mean that I don’t yet know when I’m going to be married. That’s all.”

“Positively all?” He nodded.

“Ah,” she sighed, relieved. It was evident that she identified herself whole-heartedly with his sentimental troubles, of whatever nature and by whomsoever they were caused.

She was still looking up at him, her face full of compunction and perplexity, and suddenly he put his arm about her and bent his head to her lips. They looked round and glowing, as they did in laughter or emotion; they drew his irresistibly. But he turned his head aside, and his kiss fell harmlessly on her cheek, near the tear-hung lashes. “That’s my old Judy. Come, cheerio. On with your hat, and we’ll go up the mountain.” He saw that she was still trembling, and took her by the arm in the old brotherly way. “Come,” he repeated, “let’s go out.”

In the doorway she paused and flung a last tragic glance at the cradle. “You poor old Martin, you! I suppose it’s because you’re so unhappy that you put your boots in it?” she sighed.

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