The Children, by Edith Wharton

XXVI

To Boyne the calm of the next day brought no reassurance. Too many uncertainties hung close. After a night of pondering he had sent back the ring to Mrs. Sellars, with a brief line saying that she was of course free if she chose to be, but that he could not so regard himself till they had had a talk, and she had convinced him that she would be happier if their engagement ended.

He knew that he was merely using an old formula, the accepted one in such cases, and he longed to get away from it, to be spontaneous, honest, himself. But as he wrote it became clear to him that he was terribly sorry for Rose Sellars, terribly sorry for having disappointed her; and that such phrases — the kind he had been brought up on — were the devices of decent people who hated to give pain, and were even capable of self-sacrifice to avoid it. “After all, they were a lot better than we are,” he thought; and the thought softened the close of his letter, and impelled him to add: “Do be patient with me, dear. As soon as I can get away I’ll come.”

This done, the whole problem vanished to the background of his mind. He was hardly aware that he was no longer thinking of it. His life of practical activities and swift decisions had given him the habit of easily dismissing matters once dealt with. He flattered himself that he could thus dispose of sentimental cares as easily as of professional problems; and to a certain extent it was true. Behind the close-knit foreground of his daily life there had hung for years the mirage of Rose Sellars; but that mirage was now the phantom of a phantom, and he averted his eyes lest he should find that it had faded into nothing.

After Mrs. Wheater’s letter to Judith there came no more alarms to the Pension Rosenglüh; and the days slipped by in a security which seemed satisfying to Judith, and even to Miss Scope. But summer was waning in the high valleys of the Dolomites; tourists were scattering, the big hotels preparing to close. By-and-by a cold sparkle began to fill the air in the early mornings, and at night the temperature fell to freezing. On the lower slopes the larches were turning to pale gold, and the bare cliffs burned with an intenser fire against a sky as hard as metal. The very magic of the hastening days warned Boyne that they could not last, and that the change in the landscape symbolized another, as imminent, in the fortunes of his party.

Mrs. Sellars had written again — sweetly and reasonably — saying that she intended to remain for the present with Aunt Julia, who was settled in Paris for two or three months. If Boyne really wished for another talk, she added, she hoped he would be able to come before long; but in any case he could count on her affectionate understanding. She closed her letter with a friendly message to the children.

Boyne had been afraid that Judith would revert again to the subject of his private anxieties; but she contrived, by a visible effort which made him feel for the first time that she was really growing up, to keep off the forbidden topic. His own return to a more equable mood no doubt helped her; and so did the presence of the younger children and their preceptors. Boyne half-unconsciously avoided being alone with Judith; and the shortening days and freshening temperature curtailed their expeditions, and gave more time for games and romps around the cheerful stove in the children’s dining-room.

It was there that, one rainy afternoon, he found himself sitting with the younger children. Judith had gone with Miss Scope and Nanny to Toblach, to fit out the family with autumn underclothes, Terry was upstairs, working with his tutor, Chip asleep in Susan’s care; and Blanca, in the corner nearest the stove, was brooding over a torn copy of “The Tatler” with the passionate frown she always bent on the study of fashion-plates. “Skirts ARE going to be fuller,” she said. “I’ve been telling Judy so for a month. . .”

Zinnie lifted her head from the rapt contemplation of an electric engine which Bun was putting together under Boyne’s directions. “The lady that was here today had her skirt longer; a lot longer than Judy’s,” she remarked.

Beechy, whose attention was also riveted on the motions of Bun’s agile fingers, interrupted indignantly: “She wasn’t pretty like our Judy.”

“The lady? What lady?” Boyne interposed, vaguely apprehensive. “Have you got a new lodger here?”

Blanca re-entered the conversation with a sniff. “You wouldn’t have taken her for one if you’d seen her. She’s not the Rosenglüh kind. She would certainly have been at the ‘Palace’ if it hadn’t been closed. Not exactly smart, you know — smartness has been so overdone, hasn’t it? She was — what’s that funny old word that Scopy loves? — distinguished. At least, I THINK that’s what distinguished means . . . the way that lady looked. Her clothes awfully plain; but not the least ‘sports.’ Rather governessy, really . . . like Scopy young, if Chanel could have dressed her. . .” Blanca paused, reduced to silence by the hopelessness of the attempt to fit her words to her meaning.

Boyne looked up from the engine. “Perhaps when you’ve finished with her clothes you’ll tell me what she came for.”

“To see you — you — YOU!” cried Zinnie, executing a double handspring she had lately learned from Bun, to the despair of Beechy, who was so fat that she invariably collapsed midway of the same attempt. “I could have told you that,” Zinnie added, “for I spoke to her.”

“You did? What impertinence!” cried Blanca, bounding from her seat. Bun, flat on his stomach, his legs in the air, his curls mixed with the engine, chanted over his shoulder: “Girls are always butting in — butting in. . .”

“Nasty rotters, girls are!” sympathised Beechy, always ready to champion her brother, and not as yet very clear as to her own sex.

Zinnie’s reprisals were checked by the discovery that the landlady’s gold-fish aquarium, which usually stood in the larger and colder public dining-room, had been brought in and placed on a stand before the window. She tiptoed off to inspect this forbidden Paradise while Boyne got to his feet and picked up the electric wire. “Where’s the battery? Are your rails straight? Now, then, Bun, are you ready?” He turned to Zinnie. “To see ME, did you say? What on earth for? Did she tell you?”

“Tell Zinnie! So likely!” ejaculated Blanca with a shrug. She turned to Boyne, drawing her lids together with her pretty cat-like smile. “Félicitations, cher ami. Elle était plutôt bien, la dame, vous savez.”

“Oh, shucks — zif we didn’t all of us talk French!” commented Zinnie, still watchfully circling about the aquarium.

The door opened, and a maid came in with a card which she handed hesitatingly to Boyne. The name on it was: Princess Buondelmonte, and underneath was written: “begs Mr. Boyne to see her on important business.” Boyne crammed the card into his pocket without speaking, conscious that the eyes of all the children were upon him.

“It’s the lady, it’s the lady, I know it is!” Zinnie piped. “I heard her say she was coming back to see Martin. She’s come all the way from Rome to see him.”

Blanca, at his side, had slid an insinuating hand in his. “From Rome? Oh, Martin, who is it? Mayn’t I come with you, at any rate as far as the door? I do want to see if her dress is made of kasha or crepella . . . just to be able to tell Judy. . .”

Boyne checked her firmly. “You’ve got to stay here and mind the infants. It’s nothing important — I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He thanked his stars that the lady had sent in her card instead of confiding her name to the maid. He could not imagine what his noble visitor wanted of him, but the very sight of the name had let loose all his fears. As he left the room he turned and sent a last glance toward the group sprawling around the engine, which had after all refused to start — orange curls mixed with brown and dusky, sunburnt legs kicking high, voices mixed in breathless controversy. How healthy and jolly they all looked! And how good they smelt, with that mixed smell of woollen garments, and soap, and the fruity fragrance of young bodies tumbled about together. As Boyne looked back at them he thought how funny and dear they were, and how different the world might have been if Rose Sellars had freed herself when he and she were still young. . .

A lady with a slim straight back was standing in the sitting-room, attentively examining the stuffed eagle above the stove. She turned at Boyne’s entrance and revealed a small oval face, somewhat pale, with excessively earnest gray eyes, and a well-modelled nose and brow. It puzzled him to discover why an assemblage of such agreeable features did not produce an effect of beauty; but a second glance suggested that it was because their owner had never thought about being beautiful. That she had graver preoccupations was immediately evident from the tone of her slow and carefully~modulated speech. “Mr. Boyne?” she asked, as though she feared he might deny his identity, and was immediately prepared, if he did, to disprove the denial; and on his saying that he was, she continued, with a touch of nervousness: “I have come all the way from Rome to see my children.”

“Your children —?” Boyne echoed in astonishment; and she corrected herself with a slight blush. “I should say the Prince’s. Or my step-children. But I hate the word, for I feel about them already as if they were my own.”

Boyne pushed an armchair forward, and she sat down, crossing her feet neatly, and satisfying herself that the skirt which Zinnie described as long was so adjusted as not to reveal too much of the pretty legs above her slender ankles. “They ARE here — Astorre and Beatrice?”

Boyne heard her with dismay, but kept up a brave exterior. “Here? Oh, yes — certainly. Mr. and Mrs. Wheater sent all the children here a few weeks ago — for the climate.”

Princess Buondelmonte met this with a smile of faint incredulity. “In your charge, I understand? Yes. But of course you must know that Mr. and Mrs. Wheater have really no business whatever to send my husband’s children here, or anywhere else.” She paused a moment, and added: “And I have come to take them home.”

“Oh, Princess — ” Boyne exclaimed.

She raised her handsome eyebrows slightly, and said: “You seem surprised.”

“Well — yes. At any rate, I’m awfully sorry.”

“Sorry? Don’t you think that children ought to be in their own home, with their own parents?”

“Well, that depends.”

“Depends! How can it ever —?” She crimsoned suddenly, and then grew even paler than before. “I don’t suppose you intend to insinuate —?” She broke off, and he saw that her eyes had filled with tears. “For, of course, that I won’t tolerate for a single instant,” she added a little breathlessly, as though throwing herself on his mercy in a conflict she felt to be unequal if it should turn on Prince Buondelmonte’s merits as a father.

Boyne felt so sorry for her that he answered: “I wasn’t thinking of insinuating anything. I only meant that this little group of children have always been together, and it has made them so fond of each other that they really regard themselves as one family. It seems a pity, it seems cruel. . .”

“Cruel?” she interrupted. “The real cruelty has been to deprive the poor little things for so long of a father’s influence, to take advantage of . . . of Prince Buondelmonte’s misfortunes, his undeserved misfortunes, to keep his children without a real home, without family associations, without . . . without any guiding principle. . .” She leaned forward, her grave almost terrified eyes on Boyne. “What guidance have they had? What moral training? What religious education? Have you or your friends ever thought that? It’s a big responsibility you’ve assumed. Have you never thought you might some day be asked to account for the use you’ve made of it?”

Boyne heard her with a growing wonder. She spoke slowly but fluently, not as if repeating a lesson learned by rote, but as though she were sustaining a thesis with the ease of a practised orator. There was something didactic — perhaps forensic, rather — in her glib command of her subject. He saw that she was trembling with nervousness, yet that her nerves would never control her; and his heart sank.

“I’m afraid I can’t answer all your questions,” he said, “I’ve only been with the children for a few weeks. Mr. and Mrs. Wheater asked me to keep an eye on them during the . . . the settling of certain family matters; but I can assure you that since I’ve known them they’ve always been in an atmosphere of the greatest kindness and affection; and I’m inclined to think that’s the most important thing of all.”

Princess Buondelmonte listened attentively, her brows drawn together in a cautious frown. “Of course I’m not prepared to admit that unreservedly. I mean, the kindness of salaried assistants or . . . or of inexperienced persons may do as much harm as good. To any one who has gone at all deeply into the difficult and absorbing subject of child-psychology — ” she paused, and added with an air of modest dignity: “I ought perhaps to explain that I took my degree cum laude, in Eugenics and Infant Psychology, at Lohengrin College, Texas. You may have heard that my grandfather, Dr. Judson Tring, was the founder of the college, and also its first President.” She stopped again, glanced half proudly, half shyly at Boyne, as though to see how much this glimpse of her genealogy had impressed him, and then pursued: “Can you give me, for instance, any sort of assurance that Astorre and Beatrice have ever been properly psychoanalyzed, and that their studies and games have been selected with a view to their particular moral, alimentary, dental and glandular heredity? Games, for instance, should be quite as carefully supervised as studies . . . but I know how little importance Europe still attaches to these supremely vital questions.” No adequate answer occurred to Boyne, and she rose from her seat with an impatient gesture. “I don’t know that there is any use in continuing a discussion which would not, in any case, affect my final decision, or Prince Buondelmonte’s — ”

“Oh, don’t say that!” Boyne exclaimed.

“Don’t —?”

“Not if it means you won’t listen to any plea — won’t first consider what it’s going to be to these children to be suddenly uprooted. . .”

She interrupted: “It was not Prince Buondelmonte who first uprooted them. It was through circumstances of which he was himself the victim — I may say, Mr. Boyne, the CHIVALROUS victim — that he found himself obliged (or thought himself obliged) to trust Astorre and Beatrice for a while to Mrs. Wheater. He did it simply in order that no breath of calumny should touch her.” The Princess paused, and added, with a genuine tremor in her voice: “Though Mrs. Wheater was not his children’s mother my husband always remembers that for a time she bore his name.”

If the Princess’s aim had been to reduce her interlocutor to silence, she had at last succeeded. Boyne sat speechless, wondering how much the granddaughter of Dr. Judson Tring believed of what she was saying, and to what extent her astounding version of the case was the result of patient schooling on her husband’s part. He concluded that she was incapable of deliberate deception, and fully convinced of the truth of her assertions; and he knew this would make it all the harder to reason with her. For a few moments the two faced each other without speaking; then Boyne said: “But surely the fact that Prince Buondelmonte did leave his children with Mrs. Wheater ought to be considered. If he was willing to have her keep them he must have thought she knew how to take care of them.”

The Princess again interrupted him. “My husband left his children with Mrs. Wheater for the reasons I’ve told you; but also because, owing to unfortunate circumstances, he had at the time no home to give them, and they had no mother to care for them. Now all that is changed. Since our marriage we have fortunately been able to buy back the Buondelmonte palace in Rome, and I am as anxious as he is that his children should come and live with us there.”

Boyne stood up impatiently. The talk was assuming more and more the tone of a legal debate; conducted on such lines there seemed no reason for its ever ending. If one accepted the Princess’s premises — and Boyne had no way of disproving them — it was difficult to question her conclusions. All he could do was to plead his lack of authority. He reminded his visitor that Mrs. Wheater, to whom, for whatever reason, their father had confided Bun and Beechy, had, in her turn, passed them over to their present guardians, who were therefore answerable to her, and her only. The Princess’s lips parted nervously on the first syllable of a new protest; but Boyne interrupted: “Princess! It’s really so simple — I mean the legal part. If your husband has a right to his children, no one can prevent his getting them. The real issue seems to me quite different. It concerns only the children themselves. They’re so desperately anxious not to be separated; they’re so happy together. Of course none of that is my doing. It’s their eldest step-sister — or whatever you like to call her — Mrs. Wheater’s eldest daughter, Judith, who has kept the six of them together through all the ups and downs of their parents’ matrimonial troubles. Before you decide — ”

The Princess lifted an imperative hand. “Mr. Boyne — I’m sorry. I can see that you’re very fond of the children. But fondness is not everything . . . it may even be a source of moral danger. I’m afraid we shouldn’t altogether agree as to the choice of the persons Mrs. Wheater has left in charge of them — not even as to her own daughter. The soul of a child — ”

“Yes,” Boyne acquiesced; “that’s the very thing I’m pleading for. If you could see them together . . .”

“Oh, but I intend to,” she responded briskly.

Her promptness took him aback. “Now, you mean?”

She gave a smiling nod. “Certainly. You don’t suppose I came from Rome for any other reason? But you needn’t be afraid of my kidnapping them.” Her eyes became severe again. “I hope it won’t have to come to that; but of course I intend to see my husband’s children.”

“Oh, all right,” Boyne agreed. He was beginning to divine, under her hard mechanical manner, something young and untried, something one might still reach and appeal to; and he reflected that the sight of the children would perhaps prove to be the simplest way of reaching it. “The children are playing in the other room,” he said. “Shall I go and get Bun and Beechy, or do you prefer to see them first with the others?”

The Princess said, yes, she thought she would like to see them all together at their games. “Games have such a profound psychological significance,” she explained with a smile.

“Well, I’m glad you’re going to take them by surprise. It’s always the best way with children. You’ll see what jolly little beggars they are; how they all understand each other; how well they get on together . . . I’m counting on the sight to plead our cause.”

He led her down the passage and threw open the door of the children’s dining-room.

On the threshold they were met by a burst of angry voices. Everything in the room was noise and confusion, and the opening of the door remained unheeded. In all his experience of the little Wheaters, Boyne had never before seen them engaged in so fierce a conflict: it seemed incredible that the participants should be only four. Some were screaming, some vituperating, some doing both, and butting at each other, head down, at the same time. The floor was strewn with the wreckage of battle, but the agitated movements of the combatants made the origin of the dispute hard to discover. “God,” Boyne ejaculated, stepping back.

Zinnie’s voice rose furiously above the others. “It wasn’t me’t upset the ‘quarium, I swear it wasn’t, Blanca — and those two wops know it just as well as I do. . .”

Bun squealed back: “It was you that tried to bathe Chip’s rabbit in it, you dirty little lying sneak, you!”

“No, I didn’t, neither; but Nanny don’t never give him enough to drink, ‘n so I just ran up and brought him down while Chip was asleep, ‘n if Beechy hadn’t gone and butted in — ”

“You rotten little liar, you, you know you were trying to find out if rabbits can swim.”

“No, I wasn’t, either. And it was Beechy pushed me ‘gainst the ‘quarium, and you know it was. . .”

“‘Cos the rabbit was drownding, and Judy’d have killed you if you’d of let it,” Beechy wailed.

“She’ll kill you anyhow if you call us wops again,” roared Bun.

Blanca, reluctantly torn from her study of “The Tatler,” had risen from the stove-corner and was distributing slaps and shakes with a practised hand. As she turned to the door, and saw Boyne and his visitor on the threshold, her arms dropped to her sides, and she swept the shrieking children into a corner behind her. “Oh, Martin, I’m so sorry! Did you ever see such a pack of savages? They were playing some silly game, and I didn’t realise. . .” She addressed herself to Boyne, but, as usual, it was the newcomer who fixed her attention. “What will your friend think?” she murmured with a deprecating glance.

Princess Buondelmonte, pale and erect, stood in the doorway and returned her gaze. “I shall think just what I expected to,” she said coldly. She turned to Boyne, and continued in a trembling voice: “It is just as I was saying: nothing in a child’s education should be left to chance. Games have to be directed even more carefully than studies . . . Telling a child that an older person will kill it seems to me so unspeakably wicked . . . This perpetuating of the old militarist instinct . . . ‘Kill’ is one of the words we have entirely eliminated at Lohengrin. . .” Still nervously, she addressed herself again to Blanca. “I do hope,” she said, “that the particular little savage who made that threat doesn’t happen to be mine — to be Prince Buondelmonte’s, I mean?”

Blanca was looking at her with a captivated stare. “You don’t mean to say you’re his new wife? Are you the Princess Buondelmonte, really?”

“Yes, I’m the Princess Buondelmonte,” the visitor assented, with a smile of girlish gratification which made her appear almost as young as Blanca. It was manifest that, however heavily the higher responsibilities weighed on her, she still enjoyed the sound of her new title.

But Bun, brushing aside the little girls, had flung himself impetuously upon her. “Are you really and truly my father’s new wife? Then you must tell him he’s got to send me a gun at once, to shoot everybody who calls me and Beechy a wop.”

The visitor stooped down, laying a timid yet resolute hand on his dark head. “What I shall do, my dear, is to carry you off at once, you and little Beatrice, to your own home — to your own dear father, who’s pining for you — to a place where nobody ever talks about shooting and killing. . .”

Bun’s face fell perceptibly. “Won’t my father give me a gun, don’t you suppose? Then I don’t believe Beechy ‘n me ‘d care such a lot about going.”

The Princess’s lips narrowed with the same air of resolution which had informed her hand. “Oh, but I’m afraid you’ve got to, Astorre. This is not your real home, you know, and I’m going to take you both away to the loveliest house . . . and your father’ll give you lots of other things you’ll like ever so much better. . .”

“Not than a gun, I won’t,” said Bun immovably.

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