The Children, by Edith Wharton

III

The luncheon-signal crashed in on this interrogation, and Boyne was left alone to make what he could of it. At the first sound of the gong his neighbour was on her feet, hardly heeding his suggestion that, if she had not already chosen her seat, they might meet at a table for two in the restaurant.

“Thanks a lot; but of course I lunch with my children.” And he remembered with regret that their ocean-palace had a separate dining-room for youthful passengers.

“Dash it — I should have liked a few minutes’ quiet talk with her.”

Instead, he drifted back to his usual place at a table of waifs and strays like himself: an earnest lady in spectacles who was “preparing” Sicily; an elderly man who announced every morning: “I always say the bacon on these big liners is better than anything I can get at home”; and a pale clergyman whose parishioners had sent him on a holiday tour, and whose only definite idea was to refuse to visit catacombs. “I do so want to lead a pagan life just for once,” he confided to Boyne, with an ascetic smile which showed, between racking coughs, his worn teeth and anæmic gums.

Luncheon over, Boyne hurried back to his corner, hoping to find the seat at his side already occupied; but it was empty, and empty it remained as the long blue day curved down imperceptibly toward evening.

“Father and mother don’t care to travel with the lot of us,” the girl had said.

“Father and mother”? That, as far as Boyne could make out, could mean only the Cliffe Wheaters, his old original Cliffe Wheaters, in their before-the-letter state, as it were. In that case the thin eager girl at his side would be their daughter, their eldest daughter, born probably soon after a marriage which, some thirteen or fourteen years later, had produced the sturdy and abundant Chip.

“Very unmodern, all that.” It gave Boyne a more encouraging view of the conjugal state than he had lately held, and made him look forward with a lighter mind to meeting the lady who awaited him in the Dolomites — the lady he had not seen for five years. It must certainly be pleasant to be the parent of a large reliable baby like Chip. . .

But no sooner did he imagine that he had solved the puzzle of the Cliffe Wheaters than the image of the enigmatic trio, Zinnie, Bun and Beechy, disarranged his neat equation. The “steps” — who on earth were the “steps,” and how and where did they fit into the family group which seemed, with Judith (hadn’t they called her that?) at one end, and Chip at the other, to form its own unbroken circle? Miss Wheater, he remembered, had tossed him a few details about the two brown children, Bun and Beechy. “They’re foreigners . . . Italians. . .” But if so, they belonged neither to Cliffe Wheater nor to his wife; certainly not to his wife, since Judith had added, in speaking of Bun: “His mother was a lion-tamer . . .” not as if using the term metaphorically, but as stating a plain social fact.

As for Zinnie, the little red devil, she remained wholly unaccounted for, and there was nothing in her clever impudent face, with its turned-up nose and freckled skin under the shock of orange hair, to suggest any blood-relationship to the small Italians. Zinnie appeared to be sharply and completely American — as American as Beechy and Bun were Italian, and much more so than the three elder Wheaters, who were all so rubbed down by cosmopolitan contacts. The “steps,” in fact, had the definiteness of what the botanists call species, whereas Judith, Blanca and Terry were like exquisite garden hybrids. The harder Boyne stared into the problem the more obscure it became.

Even the least eventful sea-voyages lend themselves to favourable propinquities, and in the course of the afternoon the gray-haired lady whom the young Wheaters addressed as “Scopy” reappeared on deck, this time alone, and seemingly in quest of a seat. Boyne instantly pointed out the one next to his, and the lady, saying with an austere smile: “I believe ours are on the other side, but I can take this while Judith’s resting,” settled herself at his side in an attitude of angular precision.

As she did so she gave him a look of shy benevolence, and added: “I understand from Judith that you’re a friend of her people.”

Boyne eagerly acquiesced, and she went on to say what a comfort it was, when they were on one of these long treks with the children, to come across anybody who was a friend of their parents, and could be appealed to in an emergency. “Not that there’s any particular reason at present; but it’s a good deal of a responsibility for Judith to transport the whole party from Biskra to Venice, and we’re always rather troubled about Terry. Even after four months at Biskra he hasn’t picked up as we’d hoped . . . Always a little temperature in the evenings. . .” She sighed, and turned away her sturdy weather-beaten face, which looked like a cliff on whose top a hermit had built a precarious refuge — her hat.

“You’re anxious about Terry? He does look a little drawn.” Boyne hoped that if he adopted an easy old-friend tone she might be lured on from one confidence to another.

“Anxious? I don’t like the word; and Judith wouldn’t admit it. But we always have our eye on him, the dear boy — and our minds.” She sighed again, and he saw that she had averted her head because her eyes were filling.

“It is, as you say, a tremendous responsibility for any one as young as Miss Wheater.” He hesitated, and then added: “I can very nearly guess her age, for I used to see a good deal of both her parents before they were married.”

It was a consolation to his self-esteem that the lady called “Scopy” took this with less flippancy than her young charges. It seemed distinctly interesting to her, and even reassuring, that Boyne should have been a friend of the Cliffe Wheaters at any stage in their career. “I only wish you’d gone on seeing them since,” she said, with another of her sighs.

“Oh, our paths have been pretty widely divided; so much so that at first I didn’t know whether . . . not till I saw Chip. . .”

“Ah, poor little Chipstone: he’s our hope, our consolation.” She looked down, and a faint brick-red blush crossed her face like sunset on granite. “You see, Terry being so delicate — as twins often are — Mr. Wheater was always anxious for another boy.”

“Well, Chip looks like a pretty solid foundation to build one’s hopes on.”

She smiled a little bleakly, and murmured: “He’s never given us a minute’s trouble.”

All this was deeply interesting to her hearer, but it left the three “steps” still unaccounted for; the “steps” of whom Judith had said that they were as much beloved as if they had been “altogether ours.”

“Not a minute’s trouble — I wish I could say as much of the others,” his neighbour went on, yielding, as he had hoped she would, to the rare chance of airing her grievances.

“The others? You mean — ”

“Yes: those foreign children, with their scenes and their screams and their play-acting, I shall never get used to them — never!”

“But Zinnie: Zinnie’s surely not foreign?” Boyne lured her on.

“Foreign to OUR ways, certainly; really more so than the two others, who, on the father’s side. . .” She lowered her voice, and cast a prudent eye about her, before adding: “You’ve heard of Zinnia Lacrosse, the film star, I suppose?”

Boyne racked his mind, which was meagrely peopled with film stars, and finally thought he had. “Didn’t she marry some racing man the other day — Lord Somebody?”

“I don’t know what her last enormity has been. One of them was marrying Mr. Wheater — and having Zinnie. . .”

Marrying Wheater — Zinnia Lacrosse had married Cliffe Wheater? But then — but then — who on earth was Chipstone’s mother? Boyne felt like crying out: “Don’t pile up any more puzzles! Give me time — give me time!” but his neighbour was now so far launched in the way of avowal that she went on, hardly heeding him more than if his face had been the narrow grating through which she was pouring her woes: “It’s inconceivable, but it’s so. Mr. Wheater married Zinnia Lacrosse. And Zinnie is their child. The truth is, he wasn’t altogether to blame; I’ve always stood up for Mr. Wheater. What with his feeling so low after Mrs. Wheater left him, and his wanting another boy so dreadfully . . . with all those millions to inherit. . .”

But Boyne held up a drowning hand. Mrs. Wheater had left Wheater? But when — but how — but why? He implored the merciless narrator to tell him one thing at a time — only one; all these sudden appearances of new people and new children were so perplexing to a man who’d lived for years and years in the wilderness. . .

“The wilderness? The real wilderness is the world WE live in; packing up our tents every few weeks for another move . . . And the marriages just like tents — folded up and thrown away when you’ve done with them.” But she saw, at least, that to gain his sympathy she must have his understanding, and after another cautious glance up and down the deck she settled down to elucidate the mystery and fill in the gaps. Of course, she began, Judith having told her that he — Mr. Boyne was the name? Thanks. Hers was Miss Scope, Horatia Scope (she knew the children called her “Horror Scope” behind her back, but she didn’t mind) — well, Judith having told her that Mr. Boyne was a friend of her parents, Miss Scope had inferred that he had kept up with the successive episodes of the couple’s agitated history; but now that she saw he didn’t know, she would try to make it clear to him — if one could use the word in speaking of such a muddled business. It took a great deal of explaining — as he would see — but if any one could enlighten him SHE could, for she’d come to the Wheaters’ as Judith’s governess before Blanca and Terry were born: before the first, no, the second serious quarrel, she added, as if saying: “Before the Hittite invasion.”

Quarrels, it seemed, there had been many since; she had lost count, she confessed; but the bad, the fatal, one had happened when Mrs. Wheater had met her Prince, the wicked Buondelmonte who was the father of Bun and Beechy: Beatrice and Astorre Buondelmonte, as the children were really named.

Here Boyne, submerged, had to hold up his hand again. But if Zinnie was Wheater’s child, he interrupted, were Bun and Beechy Mrs. Wheater’s? And whose, in the name of pity, was Chipstone? Well . . . Miss Scope said she understood his wonder, his perplexity; it did him credit, she declared, to be too high-minded to take in the whole painful truth at a glance. No; Bun and Beechy, thank heaven, were NOT Mrs. Wheater’s children; they were the offspring of the unscrupulous Prince Buondelmonte and a vile woman — a circus performer, she believed — whom he had married and deserted before poor Mrs. Wheater became infatuated with him. (“Infatuated” was a horrid word, she knew; but Mrs. Wheater used it herself in speaking of that unhappy time.)

Well — Mrs. Wheater, in her madness, had insisted on leaving her husband in order to marry Prince Buondelmonte. Mr. Wheater, though she had behaved so badly, was very chivalrous about it, and “put himself in the wrong” (Boyne rejoiced at the phrase) so that his wife might divorce him; but he insisted on his right to keep Terry with him, and on an annual visit of four months from Judith and Blanca; and as there was a big fight over the alimony Mrs. Wheater had to give in about the children — and that was when Judith’s heart~break began. Even as a little thing, Miss Scope explained, Judith couldn’t bear it when her parents quarrelled. She had had to get used to that, alas; but what she couldn’t get used to was, after the divorce and the two remarriages, being separated from Terry, and bundled up every year with Blanca, and sent from pillar to post, first to one Palace Hotel and then to another, wherever one parent or the other happened to be . . . It was that, Miss Scope thought, which had given the grown-up look to her eyes. . .

Luckily Mrs. Wheater’s delusion didn’t last long; the Prince hadn’t let it. Before they’d been married a year he’d taken care to show her what he was. Poor Judith, who was alone with her mother during the last dreadful months, knew something of THAT. But Miss Scope realised that she mustn’t digress, but just stick to the outline of her story till it became a little clearer to Mr. Boyne. . .

Well — when Mrs. Wheater’s eyes were opened, and the final separation from the Prince took place, she (Mrs. Wheater) was so sorry for Beatrice and Astorre — there was really nobody kinder than Mrs. Wheater — that she kept the poor little things with her, and had gone on keeping them ever since. Their father had of course been only too thankful to have them taken off his hands — and their miserable mother too. Here Miss Scope paused for breath, and hoped that Mr. Boyne was beginning to grasp —

“Yes; beginning; but — Chipstone?” he patiently insisted.

“Oh, Chip; dear Chip’s a Wheater all right! The very image of his father, don’t you think? But I see that I haven’t yet given you all the threads; there are so many . . . Where was I? Oh, about Mrs. Wheater’s separation. You know there’s no divorce in Italy, and she thought she was tied to the Prince for life. But luckily her lawyers found out that he had been legally married — in some Italian consulate at the other end of the world — to the mother of Bun and Beechy; and as the woman was still alive, the Prince’s marriage with Mrs. Wheater had been bigamous, and was immediately annulled, and she became Mrs. Wheater again — ”

“And then?”

“Then she was dreadfully miserable about it all, and Mr. Wheater was miserable too, because in the meanwhile he’d found out about the horror he’d married, and was already suing for a divorce. And Judith, who was thirteen by that time, and as wise and grown up as she is now, begged and entreated her father and mother to meet and talk things over, and see if they couldn’t come together again, so that the children would never have to be separated, and sent backward and forward like bundles — ”

“She did that? That child?”

“Judith’s never been a child — there was no time. So she got Mr. and Mrs. Wheater together, and they were both sore and unhappy over their blunders, and realised what a mess they’d made — and finally they decided to try again, and they were remarried about three years ago; and then Chip was born, and of course that has made everything all right again — for the present.”

“The present?” Boyne gasped; and the governess smoothed back her blown hair, and turned the worn integrity of her face on his.

“If I respect the truth, how can I say more than ‘the present’? But really I put it that way only for fear . . . for fear of the Fates overhearing me . . . Everything’s going as smoothly as can be; and we should all be perfectly happy if it weren’t for poor Terry, whose health never seems to be what it should . . . Mr. and Mrs. Wheater adore Chip, and are very fond of the other children; and Judith is almost sure it will last this time.”

Miss Scope broke off, and looked away again from Boyne. Her “almost” wrung his heart, and he wanted to put his hand out, and clasp the large gray cotton glove clenched on her knee. But instead he only said: “If anything can make it last, you and Judith will”; and the governess answered: “Oh, it’s all Judith. And she has all the children behind her. They say they refuse to be separated again. Even the little ones say so. They’re much more attached to each other than you’d think, to hear them bickering and wrangling. And they all worship Judith. Even the two foreigners do.”

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