The Children, by Edith Wharton

XXVII

“Take away my children? Take them away from me?” Judith Wheater had pushed open the door, and stood there, small and pale, in her dripping mackintosh and bedraggled hat. She gave a little laugh, and her gray eyes measured the stranger with a deliberate and freezing scrutiny. “I don’t in the least know who you are,” she said, “but I know you don’t know what you’re talking about. . .” She glanced away to the ravaged scene, and the frightened excited faces of the children. “Heavens! What an unholy mess! What on earth has been happening? Oh, the poor drenched rabbit . . . Here, wrap it up in my scarf . . . Nanny, take the children upstairs, and send Susan at once to tidy up. Yes, Blanca; you must go too. If you can’t keep the little ones in order you’ve got to be treated like one of them.” She turned to the bewildered visitor. “I’m Miss Wheater. If you want to see me, will you please come into the sitting-room?” Her eye fell on Boyne, who had drawn back into the dusk of the passage, as if disclaiming any part in the impending drama. “Martin,” she challenged him, “was it you who brought this lady here?”

“It’s the Princess Buondelmonte, Judith.”

Judith again scanned her with unrelenting eyes. “I’m afraid that won’t make any difference,” she said. The Princess stood drooping her high crest a little, as if unused to receiving instructions from one so much smaller and younger than herself. Boyne remembered how Judith had awed and baffled Mrs. Sellars on their first meeting, and his heart swelled with irrational hopes. “Judith,” he cautioned her, below his breath.

“This way. You’ll come too, please, Martin.” She led them down the passage, and into the sitting-room. After she had closed the door she pushed forward a chair for the Princess Buondelmonte, and said with emphasis: “Perhaps you don’t know that Mr. Boyne has been appointed the guardian of the children.”

The Princess did not seat herself. She leaned on the back of the chair, and smiled down at the champion of the little Wheaters. “They seem to have a great many guardians. I hear you’re one of them too.”

“Me?” Judith’s eyes widened in astonishment. “I’m only their eldest sister. All I do is just to try to look after them.”

Something in her accent seemed to touch the Princess, who seated herself in the chair on which she had been leaning, made sure that her skirts did not expose more than a decent extent of ankle, and began to speak in a friendlier tone. “I’m sure you’re perfectly devoted to them — that all you want is what’s best for them.”

Judith paused a moment. “That depends on what you mean by best. All I want is for us all to stay together.”

The Princess made a sign of comprehension. “Yes . . . But supposing it was not what’s best for the children?”

“Oh, but it is,” said Judith decisively. The other hesitated, and she pressed on: “Because nobody can possibly love them as much as Martin and Miss Scope and me.”

“I see. But you seem to have forgotten that they have parents. . .”

“No. It’s the parents who’ve forgotten,” Judith flashed back.

“Not all of them. Since I’m here,” the Princess smiled.

“What? Because you’ve just married Prince Buondelmonte, and probably think he ought to have remembered to look after Bun and Beechy? Well, I think so too. Only he didn’t, you see; not when they were little, and had to be wiped and changed and fed, and walked up and down when they were cutting their teeth. And now that they’re big enough to cut up their own food and be good company, I suppose you and he think it would be fun to come and carry them off, the way you’d pick out a pair of Pekes at a dog~show . . . only you forget that in the meantime they’ve grown to love US and not you, and that they’re devoted to all the other children, and that it would half kill them to be separated from each other. . .”

“Oh — devoted?” the Princess protested with her dry smile.

“Of course they are. Why do you ask? Because they were having a scrap when you came in? Did that tussle about a gold-fish frighten you? Have you never seen children bite and scratch before?” Judith gave a contemptuous shrug. “I pity you,” she said, “the first time you try to give Bun castor-oil. . .”

Was it victory or defeat? Boyne and Judith sat late in the little sitting-room, asking themselves that, after the Princess Buondelmonte had gone. It had been Boyne’s idea — and almost his only contribution to the fiery dialogue between the two — that the Princess should be invited to return in the evening and share the children’s supper. The proposal, seconded by Judith after a swift glance at Boyne, seemed to surprise their visitor, and to disarm her growing hostility. The encounter with Judith had not tended to soften her feelings, and for a moment it looked as if things were taking a dangerous turn; but Boyne had intervened with the suggestion that the Princess, having seen the children at their worst, should be given a chance to meet them in pleasanter circumstances. He added that he would be glad of another talk with her; and as she did not leave till the next day, and was staying at an hotel near his own, he asked if he might walk back there with her, and fetch her down again for supper. She accepted both suggestions, and after a mollified farewell to Judith, started up the hill with Boyne. He saw that she was still inwardly agitated, and clutching desperately at what remained of her resolution; and he put in a pacifying word in excuse of Judith’s irritability, and assured the Princess that the Wheaters would make no difficulty in recognising the Prince’s legal right to his children. The real question, he went on, was surely quite different; was one of delicacy, of good taste, if you chose to call it so. Mrs. Wheater had taken in Beechy and Bun when their father was not able to; she had given them the same advantages as her own children (the Princess, at this, sounded an ironic murmur), and had shown them the same affection; though all she had done, Boyne hastened to add, was as nothing to the patient unflagging devotion of their step~sister — who technically wasn’t even a step-sister. On that theme Boyne did not have to choose his words. They poured out with a vehemence surprising even to himself. The Princess, he supposed — whatever her educational theories were — would agree that the first thing young children needed was to be loved enough; above all, children exposed as they were in the Wheater world, where every new divorce and remarriage thrust them again into unfamiliar surroundings. Through all these changes, Boyne pointed out, Judith had clung to her little flock, loving them, and teaching them to love each other; she had even inspired governesses and nurses with her own passionate fidelity, so that in a welter of change the group had remained together, protected and happy. If only, Boyne pleaded, they could be left as they were for a few years longer; perhaps if they could it would be found, when they finally rejoined their respective families, that under Judith’s care they had been better prepared for life than if their parents had insisted on separating them.

The Princess listened attentively to his arguments, but said little in reply; Boyne suspected that she had been taught not to commit herself unless she was on familiar ground, and apparently she was unfamiliar with the kind of plea he made. The sentiments he appealed to seemed to have a sort of romantic interest for her, as feudal ruins might have for an intelligent traveller; but he saw that there were no words for them in her vocabulary.

When they went back to the Pension Rosenglüh for supper the children, headed by Terry and Blanca, presented a picture of such roseate harmony that the Princess was evidently struck. To complete the impression, Chip, who was always brought down at this hour to say goodnight, walked in led by Nanny, placed a confiding palm in the strange lady’s, said “Howoodoo,” and wound his fingers in her hair, which he pronounced to be “ike Oody’s” — for Chip was beginning to generalise and to co-ordinate, though his educators could not have put a name to the process, any more than the Princess could to the instinctive motions of the heart.

Supper, on the whole, was a success. The children were unusually well-behaved; even Zinnie subdued herself to the prevailing tone. Bun and Beechy, seated one on each side of their new step-mother, and visibly awed by her proximity, demeaned themselves with a restraint which the Princess made several timid attempts to break down. It was evident that what she had said about the prohibition of fire-arms still rankled in Bun, and both children were prim and non-committal, as they always were — to a degree unknown to the others — once their distrust was aroused. The Princess, to conceal her embarrassment, discoursed volubly about the historic interest of the ancestral palace which her husband had succeeded in repurchasing, and promised Bun that one of its spacious apartments should be fitted up as a modern playroom, in which he would learn to replace his artless antics by the newest feats in scientific gymnastics. Bun’s eyes glittered; but after a reflective silence he shook his head, “We couldn’t,” he said, “not ‘f we wanted to the most awful way; ‘cos we’ve all sworen a noath on Scopy’s book that we wouldn’t.”

This solemn self-reminder caused Beechy’s eyes to fill, and Zinnie to cry out: “We’d be damned black-hearted villains if we did!”

The Princess looked distressed. “What do you mean by swearing an oath, Astorre?” she asked, pronouncing the words as if they were explosives and must be handled with caution.

“I mean a nawful oath,” Bun explained, with an effort at greater accuracy.

“But I can’t bear to hear children talk about swearing — or about villains either,” his step-mother continued, turning with a reproachful smile to Zinnie, who promptly rejoined: “Then you’d better not ever have any of your own”; which caused the Princess to blush and lower her grave eyes.

To hide her constraint she addressed a question to the company in general. “What is this book that you children speak of as Miss Scope’s? The choice of books is so imp — ”

None of the younger children could pronounce the name of the book, and they therefore preserved a respectful silence; but Terry interrupted with a laugh: “Oh, it’s the book that Scopy cures us all out of. It’s called the ‘Cyclopædia of Nursery Remedies’.”

The Princess received this with a dubious frown. “I don’t remember a book of that name being used in our courses at Lohengrin; is it a recent publication?”

Miss Scope sat rigid and majestic at the opposite table-end. Thus directly challenged, she replied reassuringly: “Dear me, no; it’s been thoroughly tested. My mother and all my aunts used it in their families. I believe even my grandmother — ”

“Even your grandmother? But then the book must be completely obsolete — and probably very dangerous.”

Miss Scope smiled undauntedly. “Oh, I think not. My mother always found it most reliable. We were fourteen in the family, ten miles from the railway, in Lancashire, and she brought us through all our illnesses on it. In a family of that size one couldn’t always be sending for the doctor. . .”

This gave her interlocutor’s dismay a new turn. “Fourteen in your family? You don’t mean to say your mother had fourteen children?”

Miss Scope replied with undisguised pride that that was what she did mean; and the Princess laid down her fork with the air of one about to spring up and do battle against such deplorable abuses. “It’s incredible . . .” she began; then broke off to add in a lower tone: “But I suppose that at that time — ” her glance at Miss Scope’s white head seemed to say that the whole business was an old unhappy far-off thing, and she resumed more hopefully: “In the United States such matters will soon be regulated by legislation. . .”

She met Miss Scope’s horrified stare, and glanced nervously about the table, as if realising that the subject, even at Lohengrin, might hardly be considered suitable for juvenile ears. To relieve her embarrassment she leaned across Bun and addressed herself once more to Zinnie.

“You must be Lady Wrench’s little girl, aren’t you, my dear? Only think, I saw your mother the other day in Venice,” she said, in an affable attempt to change the conversation.

Zinnie’s face sparkled with curiosity. “Oh, did you see her, truly? What did she have on, do you remember?”

“Have on —?” The Princess hesitated, with a puzzled look, and Judith intervened: “Zinnie has a passion for pretty clothes.”

“I think YOURS are awfully pretty,” Zinnie insidiously put in, addressing the Princess; and added: “Are you sure my mother didn’t give you any presents to give us?”

“Zinnie!” came reprovingly from Miss Scope.

The Princess shook her head. “No; she didn’t give me any presents. Perhaps she thinks you ought to come and get them. But she gave me a message for you when she heard that I was coming here — she told me to tell you how dreadfully she wanted to see her little girl again.”

Zinnie grew scarlet with excitement and gratification; such notice lifted her at once above the other children. But an afterthought soon damped her pride. “If she really feels like that I’d of thought she’d of sent me a present,” she objected doubtfully.

“Presents aren’t everything. And it’s not very nice to associate the people you love with the thought of what they may be going to give you. Besides,” continued the Princess illogically, “if your mother is so generous, think how many presents you’d get if you were always with her.”

This seemed to plunge Zinnie into fresh perplexity. “Always with her? How could I be? She doesn’t want to ‘dopt the lot of us, does she? ‘Cos you see we’ve all sweared — ”

“You mustn’t say swear,” said the Princess.

“Swore,” Zinnie corrected herself.

“I mean, not use such words,” the Princess explained.

“But we DID,” said Zinnie, “on Scopy’s book; so she’d have to ‘dopt us all, with Judy. Do you s’pose she would?”

“I don’t know about that; perhaps it might be difficult. But why shouldn’t she want to have her own little daughter with her?” The Princess again leaned over, and laid a persuasive hand on Zinnie’s. “Don’t you want me to take you back to Venice, to your own real mother, when I go to-morrow?”

There was a pause of suspense. Boyne signed to Judith to keep silent, and the children, taking the cue, remained with spoons above their pudding, and eyes agape, while this perfidious proposal was submitted. Zinnie, from crimson, had grown almost pale; the orange spirals of her bushy head seemed to droop with her drooping lips. Her head sank on her neck, and she twisted about in its crease of plumpness the necklace her mother had given her.

“What kind of presents ‘d you s’pose they’d be?” she questioned back with caution.

“Oh, I don’t know, dear. But you oughtn’t to think about that. You ought to think only of your mother, and her wanting so much to have you. You must give me an answer to take back to her. Shan’t I tell her you want to go to her, Zinnie?”

Zinnie hung her head still lower. If it had been possible for a Wheater child to be shy, she would have appeared so; but in reality she was only struggling with a problem beyond her powers. At last she raised her head, and looked firmly at the Princess. “I should like to consult my lawyer first,” she said.

Boyne burst out laughing, and the Princess nervously joined him, perhaps to cover the appearance of defeat.

Having so obviously failed to inspire the children with confidence, she once more addressed herself to Miss Scope. “I should be so much interested in talking over your educational system with you. I suppose you’ve entirely eliminated enforced obedience, as we have at Lohengrin?”

“Enforced —?” Miss Scope gave an incredulous gasp, and her charges, evidently struck by the question, again remained with suspended spoons, and eyes eagerly fixed on the Princess. Miss Scope gave a curt laugh. “I’ve never known children to obey unless they were forced to. If you know a way to make them, I shall be glad to learn it,” she said drily.

This seemed to cause the Princess more disappointment than surprise. “Ah, that’s just what we won’t do; MAKE THEM. We leave them as free as air, and simply suggest to them to co-operate. At Lohengrin co-operation has superseded every other method. We teach even our little two-year-olds voluntary co-operation. We think the idea of obedience is debasing.” She turned with a smile to her step-son. “When Astorre and Beatrice come to live with me the first thing I shall do is to make them both co-operate.”

Bun received this unsmilingly, and Beechy burst into passionate weeping and flung her arms jealously about her brother. “No — no, you bad wicked woman, you mustn’t! You shan’t operate on Bun, only on me — if you MUST!” she added in a final wail, her desperate eyes entreating her step-mother.

“But, my dear, I don’t understand,” the Princess murmured; and Judith hurriedly explained that Blanca had been operated upon for appendicitis the previous year, and that the use of the word in connection with her illness had had an intimidating effect on the younger children, and especially on Beechy.

“But this is all wrong . . . dreadfully wrong . . .” the Princess said with a baffled sigh. No one found an answer, and supper being over, Judith proposed that they should return to the sitting-room. The children followed, marshalled by Miss Scope, and the Princess again tried to engage them in talk; but she could not break down the barrier of mistrust which had been set up. Finally she suggested that they should all play a game together — a quiet writing game she thought would be interesting. A table was cleared, and paper and pencils found with some difficulty, and distributed among the children, the youngest of whom were lifted up onto sofa-cushions to make their seats high enough for collaboration. The Princess explained that the game they were going to play was called “Ambition,” and that it had been introduced into the Vocational Department of Juvenile Psychology at Lohengrin in order to direct children’s minds as early as possible to the choice of a career. First of all, she continued, each was to write down what he or she would most like to be or to do; then they were to fold the papers, and Mr. Boyne was to shake them up in his hat, and read them out in turn, and as he read the children were to try to guess who had made each choice.

The game did not start with as much élan as its organiser had perhaps hoped. The children were still oppressed by her presence, and all of them but Terry hated writing, and were unused to abstract speculations on the future; moreover, they probably felt that if they were to state with sincerity what they wanted to be their aspirations would be received with the friendly ridicule which grown ups manifest when children express their real views.

All this made for delay and hesitation, and it was only Terry’s persuasion, and the fear of disobeying the tall authoritative lady who had suddenly invaded their lives, which finally set their pencils going. Boyne received the papers, shook them up conscientiously, and began to read them out.

“Al If Boy — oh, a LIFT-BOY; yes — .” Zinnie’s burning blush revealed her as the author of this ambition, and Boyne read on: “An Ambassadoress” — Blanca, of course; and the added vowel certainly gave the word a new stateliness. “A great Poet, or the best Writer of Detective Stories,” in Terry’s concise hand, showed him torn between a first plunge into Conan Doyle, and rapturous communion with “The Oxford Book of English Verse.”

Boyne read on: “Never brush meye tethe,” laboriously printed out by Beechy; “A Crow Bat” — an aspiration obviously to be ascribed to Bun: “A noble character” (bless Scopy! As if she wasn’t one already — ); and lastly, in Judith’s rambling script: “An exploarer.” At the reading of that, something darted through Boyne like a whirr of wings.

The ambitions expressed did not long serve to disguise the choosers, and there was a prompt chorus of attributions as Boyne read out one slip after the other. The Princess had apparently hoped that something more striking would result. She said the game usually promoted discussion, and she hoped the next stage in it would lead to freer self-expression. The children, she explained, were now to say in turn why — that is, on what grounds — they wanted to be this or that. But an awestruck silence met her invitation to debate, and Beechy again began to show signs of emotion. The Princess seemed much distressed, but was assured by Miss Scope that this breach of manners was due only to over-excitement, and the strain of sitting up later than usual — she hoped the Princess would excuse her, but really the children had better go to bed. At this suggestion all the faces round the table lit up except Zinnie’s, which was clouded by a pout. She slipped down from her cushions with the others, but when her turn came to file by the Princess for goodnight, she held up the march-past to ask: “N’arn’t there going to be any prizes after that game?”

She was swept off in Miss Scope’s clutch, and the Princess, after a timid attempt at endearment, imperfectly responded to, when Bun and Beechy took leave, sat down for a talk with Boyne and Judith. Much as she had evidently seen to disapprove of in the bringing-up of the little Wheaters she was in a less aggressive mood than in the afternoon; something she had been unprepared for, and had only half understood, in the relation of the children to each other and to their elders, seemed imperceptibly to have shaken her convictions. Though she continued to repeat the same phrases, it was with less emphasis; and she listened more patiently to Boyne’s arguments, and to Judith’s entreaties.

Judith was presently called away to say goodnight to the children, and as soon as the Princess and Boyne were alone, the former began abruptly: “But you must listen to me, Mr. Boyne; you must understand me. It’s not only that I cannot conscientiously approve of the way in which Beatrice and Astorre are being brought up: it is that I need them myself — I need them for my husband.” She coloured at the avowal, and went on hastily: “If he is to begin a new life — and he HAS begun it already — his first step ought to be to take back his children. You must see that . . . You must see how I am situated. . .” Her voice broke, and Boyne suddenly felt the same pity for her as when she had shown her fear that he might be hinting a criticism of Prince Buondelmonte’s past.

“I’ll do what I can — only trust me,” he stammered.

Judith came back, and the Princess, still a little rigid from the effort at self-control, began at once to thank her for her kindness, and to say that she was afraid it was time to go. She would tell Prince Buondelmonte, she added, with an effort at cordiality, that the children seemed very well (“PHYSICALLY well,” she explained), and she would give him the assurance — she hoped she might? — that some sort of understanding as to their future would soon be reached.

Victory or defeat? Judith and Boyne, sitting late, asked each other which it was, but found no answer.

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