The Children, by Edith Wharton

XXX

It was still raining when the Wheater colony left Cortina; it was raining when the train in which Boyne and Judith were travelling reached Paris. During the days intervening between the receipt of Mrs. Wheater’s telegram and the clattering halt of the express in the gare de Lyon, Boyne could not remember that the rain had ever stopped.

But he had not had time to do much remembering — not even of the havoc within himself. After the struggle necessary to convince Judith that she must go to Paris and take Chip with her — since disobedience to her mother’s summons might put them irretrievably in the wrong — he had first had to help her decide what should be done with the other children. Once brought round to his view, she had immediately risen to the emergency, as she always did when practical matters were at stake. She and Boyne were agreed that it would be imprudent to leave the children at Cortina, where the Princess, or even Lady Wrench, might take advantage of their absence to effect a raid on the pension. It took a three days’ hunt to find a villa in a remote suburb of Riva where they could be temporarily installed without much risk of being run down by an outraged parent. Boyne put the Rosenglüh landlady off the scent by giving her the address of Mrs. Wheater’s Paris banker, and letting it be understood that Judith was off to Paris to prepare for the children’s arrival; and Blanca and Terry, still deep in Conan Doyle, gleefully contributed misleading details.

The excitement of departure, and the business of establishing the little Wheaters in their new quarters, left no time, between Boyne and Judith, for less pressing questions; and Boyne saw that, once their plan was settled, Judith was almost as much amused as the twins by its secret and adventurous side. “It will take a Dr. Watson to nose them out, won’t it?” she chuckled, as she and Boyne, with Chip and Susan, scrambled into the Paris express at Verona. It was not till they were in the train that Boyne saw the cloud of apprehension descend on her again. But then fatigue intervened, and she fell asleep against his shoulder as peacefully as Chip, who was curled up opposite with his head in Susan’s lap. As they sat there, Boyne remembered how, on the day of Mr. Dobree’s picnic, he had watched her sleeping by the waterfall, a red glow in her cheeks, velvet shadows under her lashes. Now her face was pinched and sallow, the lids were swollen with goodbye tears; she seemed farther from him than she had ever been, yet more in need of him; and at the thought something new and tranquillizing entered into him. He had caught a glimpse of a joy he would never reach, and he knew that his eyes would always dazzle with it; but the obligation of giving Judith the help she needed kept his pain in that deep part of the soul where the great renunciations lie.

In Paris he left his companions at the door of the Nouveau Luxe, where Mrs. Wheater was established, drove to his own modest hotel on the left bank, and turned in for a hard tussle of thinking. He could no longer put off dealing with his own case, for Mrs. Sellars was still in Paris. He had not meant to let her know of his arrival till the next day; he needed the interval to get the fatigue and confusion out of his brain. But meanwhile he must map out some kind of a working plan; must clear up his own mind, and consider how to make it clear to her. And after an unprofitable attempt at rest and sleep, and a weary tramp in the rain through the dusky glittering streets, he suddenly decided on immediate action, and turned into a telephone booth to call up Mrs. Sellars. She was at home and answered immediately. Aunt Julia was resting, she said; if he would come at once they could talk without fear of interruption. He caught the tremor of joy in her voice when he spoke her name — but how like her, how perfect of her, to ask no questions, to waste no time in exclamations; just quietly and simply to say “Come”! The healing touch of her reasonableness again came to his rescue.

He would have liked to find her close at hand, on the very threshold of the telephone booth; at the rate at which his thoughts were spinning he knew he would have to go over the whole affair again in his transit to her hotel. But there was no remedy for that; he could only trust to her lucidity to help him out.

Aunt Julia’s apartment was in a hotel of the rue de Rivoli, with a row of windows overhanging the silvery reaches of the Tuileries gardens and the vista of domes and towers beyond. The room was large, airy, full of flowers. A fire burned on the hearth; Rose Sellars’s touch was everywhere. And a moment later she stood there before him, incredibly slim and young-looking in her dark dress and close little hat. Slightly paler, perhaps, and thinner — but as she moved forward with her easy step the impression vanished. He felt only her mastery of life and of herself, and thought how much less she needed him than did the dishevelled child he had just left. The thought widened the distance between them, and brought Judith abruptly closer.

“Well, here I am,” he said — “and I’ve failed!”

He had prepared a dozen opening phrases — but the sudden intrusion of Judith’s face dashed them all from his lips. He was returning to ask forgiveness of the woman to whom he still considered himself engaged, and his first word, after an absence prolonged and unaccountable, was to remind her of the cause of their breach. He saw the narrowing of her lips, and then her victorious smile.

“Dear! Tell me about it — I want to hear everything,” she said, holding out her hand.

But he was still struggling in the coil of his blunder. “Oh, never mind — all that’s really got nothing to do with it,” he stammered.

She freed her hand, and turned on the electric switch of the nearest lamp. As she bent to it he saw that the locks escaping on each temple were streaked with gray. The sight seemed to lengthen the days of their separation into months and years. He felt like a stranger coming back to her. “You’ve forgiven me?” he began.

She looked at him gravely. “What is it I have to forgive?”

“A lot — you must think,” he said confusedly.

She shook her head. “You’re free, you know. We’re just two old friends talking. Sit down over there — so.” She pointed to an armchair, sat down herself, and took off her hat. In the lamplight, under the graying temples, her face looked changed and aged, like her hair. But it was varnished over by her undaunted smile.

“Let us go back to where you began. I want to hear all about the children.” She leaned her head thoughtfully on her hand, in the attitude he had loved in the little sitting-room at Cortina.

“I feel like a ghost — ” he said.

“No; for I should be a little afraid of you if you were a ghost; and now — ”

“Well — now. . .” He looked about the pleasant firelit room, saw her work-basket in its usual place near the hearth, her books heaped up on a table, and a familiar litter of papers on a desk in the window. “A ghost,” he repeated.

She waited a moment, and then said: “I wish you’d tell me exactly what’s been happening.”

“Oh, everything’s collapsed. It was bound to. And now I— ”

He got up, walked across the room, glanced half-curiously at the titles of some of the books, and came back and leaned against the mantelpiece. She sat looking up at him. “Yes?”

“No. I can’t.”

“You can’t — what?”

“Account for anything. Explain anything — ” He dropped back into his chair and threw his head back, staring at the ceiling. “I’ve been a fool — and I’m tired; tired.”

“Then we’ll drop explanations. Tell me only what you want,” she said.

What he really wanted was not to tell her anything, but to get up again, and resume his inarticulate wanderings about the room. With an effort of the will he remained seated, and turned his eyes to hers. “You’ve been perfect — and I do want to tell you . . . to make you understand. . .” But no; that sort of talk was useless. He had better try to do what she had asked him. “About the children — well, the break-up was bound to come. You were right about it, of course. But I was so sorry for the poor little devils that I tried to blind myself. . .”

His tongue was loosened, and he found it easier to go on. After all, Mrs. Sellars was right; the story of the children must be disposed of first. After that he might see more clearly into his own case and hers. He went on with his halting narrative, and she listened in silence — that rare silence of hers which was all alertness and sympathy. She smiled a little over the Princess Buondelmonte’s invasion, and sighed and frowned when he mentioned that Lady Wrench was also impending. When he came to Mrs. Wheater’s summons, and his own insistence that Judith and Chip should immediately obey it, she lifted her eyes, and said approvingly: “But of course you were perfectly right.”

“Was I? I don’t know. When I left them just now at the door of that Moloch of a hotel — ”

She gave a little smile of reassurance. “No; I don’t think you need fear even the Nouveau Luxe. I understand what you’re feeling; but I think I can give you some encouragement.”

“Encouragement —?”

“About the future, I mean. Perhaps Mrs. Wheater’s news about herself is not altogether misleading. At any rate, I know she’s taken the best legal advice; and I hear she may be able to keep all the children — her own, that is. For of course the poor little steps — ”

Boyne listened with a sudden start of attention. He felt like some one shaken out of a lethargy. “You’ve seen her, then? I didn’t know you knew her.”

“No; I’ve not seen her, and I don’t know her. But a friend of mine does. The fact is, she ran across Mr. Dobree at the Lido after he left Cortina — ”

“DOBREE?” He stared, incredulous, as if he must have heard the wrong name.

“Yes; hasn’t she mentioned it to the children? Ah, no — I remember she never writes. Well, she had the good sense to ask him to take charge of things for her, and though he doesn’t often accept new cases nowadays he was so sorry for the children — and for her too, he says — that he agreed to look after her interests. And he tells me that if she follows his advice, and keeps out of new entanglements, he thinks she can divorce Mr. Wheater on her own terms, and in that case of course the courts will give her all the children. Isn’t that the very best news I could give you?”

He tried to answer, but again found himself benumbed. Her eyes continued to challenge him. “It’s more than you hoped?” she smiled.

“It’s not in the least what I expected.”

She waited for him to continue, but he was silent again, and she questioned suddenly: “What DID you expect?”

He looked at her with a confused stare, as if her face had become that of a stranger, as familiar faces do in a dream. “Dobree,” he said — “this Dobree. . .”

She kindled. “You’re very unfair to Mr. Dobree, Martin; you always have been. He’s not only a great lawyer, whose advice Mrs. Wheater is lucky to have, but a kind and wise friend . . . and a good man,” she added.

“Yes,” he said, hardly hearing her. All the torture of his hour of madness about Mr. Dobree had returned to him. He would have liked to leap up on the instant, and go and find him, and fight it out with his fists. . .

“I can’t think,” she continued nervously, “what more you could have hoped. . .”

He made a weary gesture. “God knows! But what does it matter?”

“Matter? Doesn’t it matter to you that the children should be safe — be provided for? That in this new crash they should remain with their mother, and not be tossed about again from pillar to post? If you didn’t want that, what did you want?”

“I wanted — somehow — to get them all out of this hell.”

“I believe you exaggerate. It’s not going to be a hell if their mother keeps them, as Mr. Dobree thinks she’ll be able to. You say yourself that she’s fond of them.”

“Yes; intermittently.”

“And, after all, if the step-children are taken back by their own parents, that’s only natural. You say the new Princess Buondelmonte seems well-meaning, and kind in her way; and as for Zinnie — I suppose Zinnie is the one of the party the best able to take care of herself.”

“I suppose so,” he acceded.

“Well, then — .” She paused, and then repeated, with a sharper stress: “I don’t yet see what you want.”

He looked about him with the same estranged stare with which his eyes had rested on her face. Something clear and impenetrable as a pane of crystal seemed to cut him off from her, and from all that surrounded her. He had been to the country from which travellers return with another soul.

“What I want . . .?” Ah, he knew that well enough! What he wanted, at the moment, was just some opiate to dull the dogged ache of body and soul — to close his ears against that laugh of Judith’s, and all his senses to her nearness. He was caught body and soul — that was it; and real loving was not the delicate distraction, the food for dreams, he had imagined it when he thought himself in love with Rose Sellars; it was this perpetual obsession, this clinging nearness, this breaking on the rack of every bone, and tearing apart of every fibre. And his apprenticeship to it was just beginning. . .

Well, there was one thing certain; it was that he must get away, as soon as he could, from the friendly room and Rose’s forgiving presence. He tried to blunder into some sort of explanation. “I don’t suppose I’ve any business to be here,” he began abruptly.

Mrs. Sellars was silent; but it was not one of her speaking silences. It was like a great emptiness slowly widening between them. For a moment he thought she meant to force on him the task of bridging it over; then he saw that she was struggling with a pain as benumbing as his own. She could not think of anything to say any more than he could, and her helplessness moved him, and brought her nearer. “She wants to end it decently, as I do,” he thought; but his pity for her did not help him to find words.

At length he got up and held out his hand. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had — and the dearest. But I’m going off on a big job somewhere; I must. At the other end of the world. For a time — ”

“Yes,” she assented, very low. She did not take the hand he held out — perhaps did not even see it. When two people part who have loved each other it is as if what happens between them befell in a great emptiness — as if the tearing asunder of the flesh must turn at last into a disembodied anguish.

“You’ve forgotten your umbrella,” she said, as he reached the door. He gave a little laugh as he came back to get it.

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