The Children, by Edith Wharton

XXXII

Boyne was coming back from Brazil. His steamer was approaching Bordeaux, moving up the estuary of the Gironde under a September sky as mild as the one which had roofed his sleep when, nearly three years earlier, he had dreamt he was at Versailles with the little Wheaters.

Three years of work and accomplishment lay behind him. And the job was not over; that was the best of it. A touch of fever had disabled him, and he was to take a few weeks’ holiday in Europe, and then return to his task. His first idea had been to put in this interval of convalescence in America; to take the opportunity to look up his people, and see a few old friends in New York. But he was sure to find Rose Sellars in New York, or near it; he could hardly go there without being obliged to see her. And the time for that had not yet come — if it ever would. He looked at his grizzled head, his sallow features with brown fever-blotches under the skin, and put away the idea with a grimace. The tropics seemed fairly to have burnt him out. . .

Rose Sellars had been kind; she had been perfect, as he had foreseen she would be. He knew that, after a winter on the Nile with Aunt Julia, she had returned to her own house in New York; for, once re-established there, she had begun to write to him again. From her letters — which were free from all recriminations, all returning to the past — he learned that she had taken up her old life again: the reading, the social round, the small preoccupations. But he saw her going through the old routine with transparent hands and empty eyes, as he could picture the ghosts of good women doing in the world of shadows.

His own case was more fortunate. His eyes were full of visions of work to be, his hands of the strength of work done. Yet at times he too felt tenuous and disembodied. Since the fever, particularly — it was always disastrous to him to have to interrupt his work. And this flat soft shore that gave him welcome — so safe, so familiar — how it frightened him! He didn’t want to come in contact with life again, and life always wooed him when he was not at work.

It was odd, how little, of late, he had thought of the Wheaters. At first the memory of them had been a torture, an obsession. But luckily he had not given his address to Judith, and so she had not been able to write; and Mrs. Sellars had never once alluded to the children. His work in Brazil lay up country, far from towns and post-offices; but bundles of American newspapers straggled in at uncertain intervals, and from one he had learned that the Wheater divorce had been pronounced in Mrs. Wheater’s favour, from another, about a year later, that Cliffe had married Mrs. Lullmer. There had been an end of the story . . . and Boyne had lived long enough to know that abrupt endings were best.

As his steamer pushed her way up the estuary he was still asking himself how he should employ his holiday. All his thoughts were with his interrupted work, with the man who had temporarily replaced him, and of whose judgment and temper he was not quite sure. He could not as yet bring himself to consider his own plans for the coming weeks, because, till he could get back to Brazil, everything that might happen to him seemed equally uninteresting and negligible.

At dinner that evening, at the famous Chapeau Rouge of Bordeaux, the fresh truffles cooked in white wine, and washed down with a bottle of Chateau Margaux, insensibly altered his mood. He had forgotten what good food could be like. His view of life was softened, and even the faces of the people at the other tables, commonplace as they were, gradually began to interest him. At the steamer landing the walls were plastered over with flamboyant advertisements of the watering-places of the Basque coast: Cibour, Hendaye, St. Jean de Luz, Biarritz. A band of gay bathers on a white beach, under striped umbrellas, was labelled Hendaye; another, of slim ladies silhouetted on a terrace against a cobalt sea, while their partners absorbed cocktails at little tables, stood for Biarritz. The scene recalled to Boyne similar spectacles all the world over: casinos, dancing, gambling, the monotonous rattle and glare of cosmopolitan pleasure. And suddenly he felt that to be in such a crowd was what he wanted — a crowd of idle insignificant people, not one of whom he would ever care to see again. He fancied the idea of bands playing, dancers undulating over polished floors, expensive food served on flowery terraces, high play in crowded over-heated gaming-rooms. It was the lonely man’s flight from himself, the common impulse of hard workers on first coming out of the wilderness. He took the train for Biarritz. . .

The place was in full season; but he found a room in a cheap hotel far from the sea, and forthwith began to mix with the crowd. At first his deep inner loneliness cut him off from them; that people should be leading such lives seemed too absurd and inconsequent. But gradually the glitter took him, as it often had before after a long bout of hard work and isolation; he enjoyed the feeling of being lost in the throng, alone and unnoticed, with no likelihood of being singled out, like Uncle Edward, for some agreeable adventure.

Adventure! He had come to hate the very word. His one taste of the thing had been too bitter. All he wanted now was to be amused; and he hugged his anonymity. For three days he wandered about, in cafés, on terraces above the sea, and in the gaming-rooms. He even made an excursion across the Spanish border; but he came back from it tired and dispirited. Solitude and scenery were not what he wanted; he plunged into the Medley again.

On the fourth day he saw the announcement: “Gala Dinner and Dance tonight at the Mirasol.” The Mirasol was the newest and most fashionable hotel in Biarritz — the “Palace” of the moment. The idea of assisting at the gala dinner took Boyne’s fancy, and in the afternoon he strolled up to the hotel to engage a table. But they were all bespoken, and he sat down in the hall to glance over some illustrated papers. The place, at that hour, was nearly empty; but presently he heard a pipe of childish laughter coming from the corner where the lift was caged. Several liveried lift-boys were hanging about in idleness, and among them was a little girl with long legs, incredibly short skirts and a fiery bush of hair. Boyne laid down his paper and looked at her; but her back was turned to him. She was wrestling with the smallest of the lift-boys, while the others looked on and grinned. Presently a stout lady descended from a magnificent motor, entered the hotel and walked across the hall to the lift. Instantly the boys stood to attention, and the red-haired child, quiet as a mouse, slipped into the lift after the stout lady, and shot up out of sight. When the lift came down again, she sprang out, and instantly resumed her romp with the boys. This time her face was turned toward Boyne, and he saw that she was Zinnie Wheater. He got up from his chair to go toward her, but another passenger was getting into the lift, and Zinnie followed, and disappeared again. The next time it came down, two or three people were waiting for it; Zinnie slipped in among them, flattening herself into a corner. Boyne sat and watched her appearing and disappearing in this way for nearly an hour — it was evidently her way of spending the afternoon. And not for the first time, presumably; for several of the passengers recognised her, and greeted her with a nod or a joke. One fat old gentleman in spats produced a bag of sweets, and pinched her bare arm as he gave it to her; and a lady in black with a little girl drew the latter close to her, and looked past Zinnie as if she had not been there. . .

At last there came a lull in the traffic, the attendants relapsed into lassitude, and Zinnie, after circling aimlessly about the hall, slipped behind the porter’s desk, inspected the letters in the mahogany pigeon-holes against the wall, and began to turn over the papers on the desk. Then she caught sight of the porter approaching from a distance, slid out from behind the desk, waltzed down the length of the hall and back, and stopped with a yawn just in front of Boyne. For a moment she did not seem to notice him; but presently she sidled up, leaned over his shoulder, and said persuasively: “May I look at the pictures with you?”

He laid the paper aside and glanced up at her. She stared a moment or two, perplexedly, and then flushed to the roots of her hair. “Martin — why, I believe it’s old Martin!”

“Yes, it’s old Martin — but you’re a new Zinnie, aren’t you?” he rejoined.

Her eyes were riveted on him; he saw that she was half shy, half eager to talk. She perched on the arm of his chair and took his neck in her embrace, as Judith used to.

“Well, it’s a long time since I saw you. I’m lots older — and you are too,” she added reflectively. “I don’t believe you’d have known me if I hadn’t spoken to you, would you?”

“Not if you hadn’t had that burning bush,” he said, touching her hair. His voice was trembling; he could hardly see her for the blur in his eyes. If he closed his lids he might almost imagine that the thin arm about his neck was Judith’s. . .

“Well, how’s everybody?” he asked, a little hoarsely.

“Oh, awfully well,” said Zinnie. “But you don’t look very well yourself,” she added, turning a sidelong glance on him.

“Never mind about me. Are you here together, all of you — or have the others stayed at Dinard?”

“Dinard?” She seemed to be puzzled by the question.

“Wasn’t your mother going to buy a house in the country near Dinard?”

“Was she? I dunno. We’ve never had a house of our own,” said Zinnie.

“Never anywhere?”

“No. I guess it would only bother mother to have a house. She likes hotels better. She’s married again, you know; and she’s getting fat.”

“Married?”

“Didn’t you know about that either? How funny! She’s married to Mr. Dobree,” said Zinnie, swinging her legs against Boyne’s chair.

Boyne sat silent, and she continued, her eyes wandering over him critically: “I guess you’ve had a fever, haven’t you — or else something bad with your liver?”

“Nothing of the sort. I was never better. But you’re all here, then, I suppose?” His heart stood still as he made a dash at the question.

“Yes; we’re all here,” said Zinnie indifferently. “At least Terry’s at school in Switzerland, you see; and Blanca’s at a convent in Paris, ‘cos she got engaged again to a lift-boy who was a worse rotter than the first; and Bun and Beechy are in Rome, in their father’s palace. They hate writing, so we don’t actually know how they are.”

“Ah — ” Boyne commented. He looked away from her, staring across the deserted hall. “But Chip’s here?” he asked.

Zinnie shook her red curls gravely. “No, he isn’t here either.” She hesitated a moment, swinging her legs. “He’s buried,” she said.

“Buried —?”

“Didn’t you know that either? You’ve been ever so far away, I suppose. Chip got menin — meningitis, isn’t it? We were at Chamonix, for Terry. The doctors couldn’t do anything. It was last winter — no, the winter before. We all cried awfully; we wore black for three months. And so after that mother decided she’d better marry Mr. Dobree; because she was too lonely, she said.”

“Ah, lonely — ”

“Yes; and so after a while we came to Paris and she was married. It must have been two years ago, because the steps were with us still; and Beechy and I wore little pink dresses at the wedding, and Bun was page. I wonder you didn’t see our photographs in the ‘Herald.’ Don’t you ever read the ‘Herald’?”

“Not often,” Boyne had to admit.

Zinnie continued to swing her legs against the side of his chair. “And it’s then we found out what Mr. Dobree’s Christian name is,” she rambled on. “We had work doing it; but Terry managed to see the papers he had to sign the day of the wedding, and so we found out. His name’s Azariah. We never thought of that, did we? It’s the name of a man who made millions in mines; so I s’pose when he died he left all his money to Mr. Dobree.”

“Made millions in mines?”

“Well, that’s what Scopy said. She said: ‘Not know that? You little heathens! Why, of course, Azariah was a minor prophet.’”

“Oh, of course; naturally,” Boyne murmured, swept magically back to the world of joyous incongruities in which he had lived enchanted with the little Wheaters,

“So we think that’s why he’s so rich, and why mother married him,” Zinnie concluded, with a final kick on the side of the chair; then she slid down, put her hands on her hips, pirouetted in front of Boyne, and held out the bag of pink glazed paper which the old gentleman who wore spats had given her. “Have a chocolate? The ones in gold paper have got liqueur in ’em,” she said. Boyne shook his head, and she continued to look at him attentively. At last: “Martin, darling, aren’t those Abdullahs you’re smoking? Will you let me have one?” she said in a coaxing voice.

“Let you have one? You don’t mean to say you smoke?”

“No; but I have a friend who does.” Boyne held out his cigarette~case with a shrug, and she drew out a small handful, and flitted away to the lift. When she came back her face was radiant. “It’s awfully sweet of you,” she said. “You always were an old darling. Don’t you want to come upstairs and see mother? She was a little tired after lunch, so I don’t believe she’s gone out yet.”

Boyne got to his feet with a gesture of negation. “Sorry, my dear; but I’m afraid I can’t. I— fact is, I’m just here for a few hours . . . taking the train back to Bordeaux presently,” he stammered.

“Oh, are you? That’s too bad. Mother will be awfully sorry — and so will Judy.”

Boyne cleared his throat, and brought out abruptly: “Ah, she’s here too — Judy?”

Zinnie stared at the question. “Course she is. Only just today she’s off on an excursion with some P’ruvians. They’ve got an awfully long name — I can’t remember it. They have two Rolls~Royces. She won’t be back not till just before dinner. She’ll have to be back then, because she’s got a new dress for the dance tonight. It’s a pity you can’t come back and see her in it.”

“Yes — it’s a pity. But I can’t.” He held out his hand, and she put her little bony claw into it. “Goodbye, child,” he said; then, abruptly, he bent down to her. “Kiss me, Zinnie.” She held up her merry face, and he laid his lips on her cheek. “Goodbye,” he repeated.

He had really meant, while he talked with her, to go back to his hotel and pack up, and catch the next train for anywhere. The place was like a tomb to him now; under all the noise and glitter his past was buried. He walked away with hurried strides from the Mirasol; but when he got back to his own hotel he sat down in his room and stared about him without making any effort to pack. He sat there for a long time — for all the rest of the afternoon — without moving. Once he caught himself saying aloud: “She’s got a new dress for the dance.” He laughed a little at the thought, and became immersed in his memories. . .

Boyne dined at a restaurant — he didn’t remember where — turned in at a cinema for an hour, and then got into his evening clothes, and walked up through the warm dark night to the Mirasol. The great building, shining with lights, loomed above a tranquil sea; music drifted out from it, and on the side toward the sea its wide terrace was thronged with ladies in bright dresses, and their partners. Boyne walked up among them; but as he reached the terrace a drizzling rain began to fall, and laughing and crying out the dancers all hurried back into the hotel. He stood alone on the damp flagging, and paced up and down slowly before the uncurtained windows. The dinner was over — the restaurant was empty, and through the windows he saw the waiters preparing the tables again for supper. Farther on, he passed other tall windows, giving on a richly upholstered drawing-room where groups of elderly people, at tables with shaded lamps, were playing bridge and poker. Among them he noticed a stout lady in a low-necked black dress. Her much~exposed back was turned to him, and he recognised the shape of her head, the thatch of rippled hair, silver-white now (she had kept her resolve of not dyeing it), and the turn of her white arms as she handled her cards. Opposite her sat her partner, also white~headed, in a perfectly cut dinner-jacket; the lamplight seemed to linger appreciatively on his lustrous pearl studs and sleeve-links. It was Mr. Dobree, grown stouter too, with a reddish fold of flesh above his immaculate collar. The couple looked placid, well fed, and perfectly satisfied with life and with each other.

Boyne continued his walk, and turning an angle of the building, found himself facing the windows of the ballroom. The terrace on that side, being away from the sea, was but faintly lit, and the spectacle within seemed therefore more brilliantly illuminated.

At first he saw only a blur of light and colour; couples revolving slowly under the spreading chandeliers, others streaming in and out of the doorways, or grouped about the floor in splashes of brightness. The music rose and fell in palpitating rhythms, paused awhile, and began again in obedience to a rattle of hand-clapping. The floor was already crowded, but Boyne’s eyes roved in vain from one slender bare-armed shape to another; then he said to himself: “But it’s nearly three years since I saw her. She’s grown up now — perhaps I’m looking at her without knowing her. . .”

The thought that one of those swaying figures might be Judith’s, that at that very instant she might be gazing out at him with unknown eyes, sent such a pang through him that he moved away again into the darkness. The rain had almost ceased, but a faint wind from the sea drove the wet air against his face; he might almost have fancied he was crying. The pain of not seeing her was unendurable. It seemed to empty his world. . .

He heard voices and steps approaching behind him on the terrace, and to avoid being scrutinised he mechanically turned back to the window. And there she was, close to him on the other side of the pane, moving across the long reflections of the floor. And he had imagined that he might not know her!

She had just stopped dancing; the arm of a very tall young man with a head as glossy as his shirt-front detached itself from her waist. She was facing Boyne now — she was joining a group near his window. Two or three young girls greeted her gaily as she passed them. The centre of the room was being cleared for a pair of professional dancers, and Judith, waving away a gilt ballroom chair which somebody proffered, remained standing, clustered about by other slender and glossy young men. Boyne, from without, continued to gaze at her.

He had not even asked himself if she had changed — if she had grown up. He had totally forgotten his fear that he might not recognise her. He knew now that if she had appeared to him as a bent old woman he would have known her . . . He watched her with a passionate attentiveness. Her silk dress was of that peculiar carnation-pink which takes a silver glaze like the bloom on a nectarine. The rich stuff stood out from her in a double tier of flounces, on which, as she stood motionless, her hands seemed to float like birds on little sunlit waves. Her hair was moulded to her head in close curves like the ripples of a brown stream. Instead of being cut short in the nape it had been allowed to grow, and was twisted into a figure eight, through which was thrust an old-fashioned diamond arrow. Her throat and neck were bare, and so were her thin arms; but a band of black velvet encircled one of her wrists, relieving the tender rose-and-amber of her dress and complexion. Her eyes seemed to Boyne to have grown larger and more remote, but her mouth was round and red, as it always was when she was amused or happy. While he watched her one of the young men behind her bent over to say something. As she listened she lifted a big black fan to her lips, and her lids closed for a second, as they did when she wanted to hold something sweet between them. But when she furled the fan her expression changed, and her face suddenly became as sad as an autumn twilight.

“JUDITH!” Boyne thought; as if her being Judith, her being herself, were impossible to believe, yet too sweet for anything else in the world to be true . . . It was one of her moments of beauty — that fitful beauty which is so much more enchanting and perilous than the kind that gets up and lies down every day with its wearer. This might be — Boyne said to himself — literally the only day, the only hour, in which the queer quarrelling elements that composed her would ever join hands in a celestial harmony. It did not matter what had brought the miracle about. Perhaps she was in love with the young man who had bent over her, and was going to marry him. Or perhaps she was still a child, pleased at her new dress, and half proud, half frightened in the waking consciousness of her beauty, and the power it exercised . . . Whichever it was, Boyne knew he would never know. He drew back into an unlit corner of the terrace, and sat there a long time in the dark, his head thrown back and his hands locked behind it. Then he got up and walked away into the night.

Two days afterward, the ship which had brought him to Europe started on her voyage back to Brazil. On her deck stood Boyne, a lonely man.

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