The Children, by Edith Wharton

XXIX

Boyne felt like a man who has blundered along in the dark to the edge of a precipice. He trembled inwardly with the effort of recovery, and the shock of finding himself flung back into his old world. Judith, in a rush of gratitude, had thrown her arms about him; and he shrank from her touch, from the warm smell of her hair, from everything about her which he had to think back into terms of childhood and comradeship, while every vein in his body still ached for her. There was nothing he would have dreaded as much as her detecting the least trace of what he was feeling. His first care must be to hide the break in their perfect communion — the fact that for a moment she had been for him the woman she would some day be for another man, in a future he could never share. He undid her hands and walked away to the window.

When he turned to her again he had struggled back to some sort of composure. “Judy, child, I wish you wouldn’t take such terrible life-leases on the future.” He tried to smile as he said it. “I’m always afraid it will bring us bad luck. We’d much better live from hand to mouth. I’m ready to promise all that a reasonable man can — that I’ll put up another big fight for you, and that I don’t despair of winning it. At any rate, I’ll be there; I’ll stand by you; I won’t desert you. . .” He broke off, reading in her unsatisfied eyes the hopelessness of piling up vague assurances. . .

“Yes,” she assented, in a voice grown as small and colourless as her face.

He stood before her miserably. “You do understand, dear, don’t you?”

“I’m not sure. . .” She hesitated. “A little while ago I thought I did.”

His nerves began to twitch again. Could he bear to go into the question with her once more — and what would be the use if he did? The immediate future must somehow or other be dealt with; but the last few minutes had deprived him of all will and energy. He had the desolate sense of her knowing that he had failed her, and yet not being able to guess why.

“Of course I’ll do what I can,” he repeated.

She remained silent, constrained by his constraint; and he saw the disappointment in her eyes.

“You don’t believe me?”

Still she looked at him perplexedly. “But you said . . . I thought you said just now that you’d found a way of keeping us all together. No matter what happened; you had a plan, you said.”

His senseless irritation grew upon him. Could such total simplicity be unfeigned? Could she have such a power of awaking passion without any inkling of its meaning? He hated himself for doubting it. In time — a short time, perhaps — her rich nature would come to its ripeness; but as yet the only full-grown faculties in it were her love for her brothers and sisters, and her faith in the few people who had shown her kindness in a world unkindly.

“I’m sorry,” she continued, after pausing for an answer which did not come. “I must have misunderstood you, I suppose.”

Boyne gave a nervous laugh. “You did, most thoroughly.”

“And — you won’t tell me what you really meant?”

He stood motionless, his hands in his pockets, staring down at the knots in the wooden floor, as he had stared at them on the day when she had owned to having taken her father’s money — but in a mental perturbation how much deeper! A few minutes before, it had seemed like profanation to brush her with the thought of his love; now, faced by her despair, by her sense of being left alone to fight her battles, he asked himself whether it might not be fairer, even kinder, to speak. At the thought his heart again began to beat excitedly. Perhaps he had been too impetuous, too inarticulate. What if, after all, a word from him could wake the sleeping music?

The difficulty was to find a beginning. What would have been so simple if kisses could have told it, seemed tortuous or brutal when put in words. He shrank not so much from the possibility of hurting her as from the sudden fear of her hurting him beyond endurance.

“Judith,” he began, “how old are you?”

“I shall be sixteen in three months — no, in five months, really,” she said, with an obvious effort at truthfulness.

“As near as that! Well, sixteen is an age,” he laughed.

She continued to fix her bewildered eyes on him, as if seeking a clue. “But I look a lot older, don’t I?” she added hopefully.

“Older? There are times when you look so old that you frighten me.” He remembered then that she had spoken to him with perfect simplicity of Gerald Ormerod’s desire to marry her, as of the most natural thing in the world; and his own scruples began to seem absurd. “I’m always forgetting what a liberal education she’s had,” he thought with a touch of self-derision.

He cleared his throat, and continued: “So grown up that I suppose you’ll soon be thinking of getting married.”

The word was out now; it went sounding on and on inside of his head while he awaited her answer. When she spoke it was with an air of indifference and disappointment.

“What’s the use of saying that? How can I ever marry, with all the children to look after?” It was clear that she regarded the subject as irrelevant; her tone seemed to remind him that he and she had long since dealt with and disposed of it. “You might as well tell me that I ought to be educated,” she grumbled.

He pressed on: “But it might turn out . . . you might find . . .” He had to pause to steady his voice. “If we can’t prevent the children being taken away from you, you’ll be awfully lonely. . .”

“Taken away from me?” At the word her listlessness vanished. “Do you suppose I’ll let them be taken like that? Without fighting to the very last minute? Let Syb Lullmer get hold of Chip — and Bun and Beechy go to that Buondelmonte man?”

“I know. It’s hateful. But supposing the very worst happens — oughtn’t you to face that now?” He cleared his throat again. “If things went wrong, and you were very lonely, and a fellow asked you to marry him — ”

“Who asked me?”

He laughed again. “If I did.”

For a moment she looked at him perplexedly; then her eyes cleared, and for the first time she joined in his laugh. Hers seemed to bubble up, fresh and limpid, from the very depths of her little girlhood. “Well, that would be funny!” she said.

There was a bottomless silence.

“Yes — wouldn’t it?” Boyne grinned. He stared at her without speaking; then, like a blind man feeling his way, he picked up his hat and mackintosh, said: “Where’s my umbrella? Oh, outside — ” and walked out stiffly into the passage. On the doorstep, still aware of her nearness, he added a little dizzily: “No, please — I want a long tramp alone first . . . I’ll come in again this afternoon to settle what we’d better do about Paris. . .”

He felt her little disconsolate figure standing alone behind him in the rain, and hurried away as if to put himself out of its reach forever.

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