The Children, by Edith Wharton

V

“I’m so much interested in your picturesque description of the little-girl-mother (sounds almost as nauseating as ‘child-wife,’ doesn’t it?) who is conducting that heterogeneous family across Europe, while the parents are jazzing at Venice. What an instance of modern manners; no, not manners — there are none left — but customs! I’m sure if I saw the little creature I should fall in love with her — as you are obviously doing. Luckily you’ll be parting soon, or I should expect to see you arrive here with the girl-bride of the movies and a tribe of six (or is it seven?) adopted children. Don’t imagine, though, that in that case I should accept the post of governess.” And then, p.s: “Of course she’s awfully pretty, or you wouldn’t have taken so much pains to say that she’s not.”

One of Rose Sellars’s jolly letters: clever, understanding and humorous. Why did Boyne feel a sudden flatness in it? Something just a trifle mincing, self-conscious — prepared? Yes; if Mrs. Sellars excelled in one special art it was undoubtedly that of preparation. She led up to things — the simplest things — with the skill of a clever rider putting a horse at a five-barred gate. All her life had been a series of adaptations, arrangements, shifting of lights, lowering of veils, pulling about of screens and curtains. No one could arrange a room half so well; and she had arranged herself and her life just as skilfully. The material she had had to deal with was poor enough; in every way unworthy of her; but, as her clever hands could twist a scarf into a divan-cover, and ruffle a bit of paper into a lamp-shade, so she had managed, out of mediocre means, a mediocre husband, an ugly New York house, and a dull New York set, to make something distinguished, personal, almost exciting — so that, in her little world, people were accustomed to say “Rose Sellars” as a synonym for cleverness and originality.

Yes; she had had the art to do that, and to do it quietly, unobtrusively, by a touch here, a hint there, without ever reaching out beyond her domestic and social frame-work. Her originality, in the present day, lay in this consistency and continuity. It was what had drawn Boyne to her in the days of his big wanderings, when, returning from an arduous engineering job in Rumania or Brazil or Australia, he would find, in his ever-shifting New York, the one fixed pole of Mrs. Sellars’s front door, always the same front door at the same number of the same street, with the same Whistler etchings and Sargent water-colours on the drawing-room walls, and the same quiet welcome to the same fireside.

In his homeless years that sense of her stability had appealed to him peculiarly: the way, each time he returned, she had simply added a little more to herself, like a rose unfurling another petal. A rose in full sun would have burst into quicker bloom; it was part of Mrs. Sellars’s case that she had always, as Heine put it, been like a canary in a window facing north. Not due north, however, but a few points north by west; so that she caught, not the sun’s first glow, but its rich decline. He could never think of her as having been really young, immaturely young, like this girl about whom they were exchanging humorous letters, and who, in certain other ways, had a precocity of experience so far beyond Mrs. Sellars’s. But the question of a woman’s age was almost always beside the point. When a man loved a woman she was always the age he wanted her to be; when he had ceased to, she was either too old for witchery or too young for technique. “And five years is too long a time,” he summed it up again, with a faint return of the apprehension he always felt when he thought of his next meeting with Mrs. Sellars.

Five years was too long; and these five, in particular, had transformed the situation, and perhaps its heroine. It was a new Rose Sellars whom he was to meet. When they had parted she was still a wife — resigned, exemplary, and faithful in spite of his pleadings; now she was a widow. The word was full of disturbing implications, and Boyne had already begun to wonder how much of her attraction had been due to the fact that she was unattainable. It was all very well to say that he “wasn’t that kind of man” — the kind to tire of a woman as soon as she could be had. That was all just words; in matters of sex and sentiment, as he knew, a man was a different kind of man in every case that presented itself. Only by going to the Dolomites to see her could he really discover what it was that he had found so haunting in Rose Sellars. So he was going.

“Mr. Boyne — could we have a quiet talk, do you think?”

Boyne, driven from the deck by the heat and glare, and the activities of the other passengers, was lying on his bed, book in hand, in a state of after-luncheon apathy. His small visitor leaned in the doorway, slender and gray-clad: Terry Wheater, with the faint pinkness on his cheek-bones, the brilliance in his long~lashed eyes, that made his honest boy’s face at times so painfully beautiful.

“Why, of course, old man. Come in. You’ll be better off here than on deck till it gets cooler.”

Terry tossed aside his cap and dropped into the chair at Boyne’s bedside. They had shared a cabin for nearly a fortnight, and reached the state of intimacy induced by such nearness when it does not result in hate; but Boyne had had very few chances to talk with the boy. Terry was always asleep when the older man turned in, and Boyne himself was up and out long before Terry, kept in bed by the vigilant Miss Scope, had begun his leisurely toilet. Boyne, by now, had formed a fairly clear idea of the characteristics of the various young Wheaters, but Terry was perhaps the one with whom he had spent the least time; and the boy’s rather solemn tone, and grown-up phraseology, made him lay aside his book with a touch of curiosity.

“What can I do for you, Terry?”

“Persuade them that I ought to have a tutor.”

“Them?”

“I mean the Wheaters — father and mother,” Terry corrected himself. The children, Boyne knew, frequently referred to their parents by their surname. The habit of doing so, Miss Scope had explained, rose from the fact that, in the case of most of the playmates of their wandering life, the names “father” and “mother” had to be applied, successively or simultaneously, to so many different persons; indeed one surprising little girl with black curls and large pearl earrings, whom they had met the year before at Biarritz, had the habit of handing to each new playmate a typed table of her parents’ various marriages and her own successive adoptions. “So they all do it now; that is, speak of their different sets of parents by their names. And my children have picked up the habit from the others, though in their own case, luckily, it’s no longer necessary, now that their papa and mamma have come together again.”

“I mean father and mother,” Terry repeated. “Make them understand that I must be educated. There’s no time to lose. And YOU could.” His eyes were fixed feverishly — alas, too feverishly — on Boyne’s, and his face had the air of precocious anxiety which sometimes made Judith look so uncannily mature.

“My dear chap — of course I’ll do anything I can for you. But I don’t believe I shall be seeing your people this time. I’m going to jump into the train the minute we get to Venice.”

The boy’s face fell. “You are? I’m sorry. And Judy will be awfully sold.”

“That’s very good of her — and of you. But you see — ”

“Oh, I can see that a solid fortnight of the lot of us is a good deal for anybody,” Terry acquiesced. “All the same, Judy and I did hope you’d stay in Venice for a day or two. We thought, you see, there were a good many things you could do for us.”

Boyne continued to consider him thoughtfully. “I should be very glad if I could. But I’m afraid you overrate my influence. I haven’t seen your parents for years. They’d hardly remember me.”

“That’s just it: you’d be a novelty,” said Terry astutely.

“Well — if that’s an inducement . . . Anyhow, you may be sure I’ll do what I can . . . if I find I can alter my plans. . .”

“Oh, if you could! You see I’ve really never had anybody to speak for me. Scopy cuts no ice with them, and of course they think Judy’s too young to know about education — specially as she’s never had any herself. She can’t even spell, you know. She writes stomach with a k. And they’ve let me go on like this, just with nurses and nursery-governesses (that’s really all Scopy is), as if I wasn’t any older than Bun, when I’m at an age when most fellows are leaving their preparatory schools.” The boy’s face coloured with the passion of his appeal, and the flush remained in two sharp patches on his cheeks.

“Of course,” he went on, “Judy says I’m not fair to them — that I don’t remember what a lot they’ve had to spend for me on doctors and climate, and all that. And they did send me to school once, and I had to be taken away because of my beastly temperature . . . I know all that. But it WAS a sell, when I left school, just to come back again to Scopy and Nanny, and nobody a fellow could put a question to, or get a tip from about what other fellows are learning. Last summer, at St. Moritz, I met a boy not much older than I am who was rather delicate too, and he’d just got a new father who was a great reader, and who had helped him no end, and got a tutor for him; and he’d started Cæsar, and was getting up his Greek verbs — with a temperature every evening too. And I said to Judy: ‘Now, look at that.’ And she said, yes, it would be splendid for me to have a tutor. And for two weeks the other fellow’s father let me work a little with him. But then we had to go away — one of our troubles,” Terry interrupted himself, “is that we’re so everlastingly going away. But I suppose it’s always so with children — isn’t it? — with all the different parents they’re divided up among, and all the parents living in different places, and fighting so about when the children are to go to which, and the lawyers always changing things just as you think they’re arranged . . . Of course a chap must expect to be moving about when he’s young. But Scopy says that later parents settle down.” He added this on a note of interrogation, and Boyne, feeling that an answer was expected, declared with conviction: “Oh, but they do — by Jove, they do!”

Inwardly he was recalling the warm cocoon of habit in which his own nursery and school years had been enveloped, giving time for a screen of familiar scenes and faces to form itself about him before he was thrust upon the world. What had struck Boyne first about the little tribe generically known as the Wheaters was that they were so exposed, so bared to the blast — as if they had missed some stage of hidden growth for which Palace Hotels and Riviera Expresses afforded no sufficient shelter. He found his gaze unable to bear the too-eager questioning of the boy’s, and understood why Miss Scope looked away when she talked of Terry.

“Settle down? Rather! People naturally tend to as they get older. Aren’t your own parents proving it already? Haven’t you all got together again, so to speak?” Boyne winced at his own exaggerated tone of optimism. It was a delicate matter, in such cases, to catch exactly the right note.

“Yes,” Terry assented. “You’d think so. But I know children who’ve thought so too, and been jolly well sold. The trouble is you can never be sure when parents will really begin to feel old. Especially with all these new ways the doctors have of making them young again. But anyhow,” he went on more hopefully, “if you would put in a word I’m sure it would count a lot. And Judy is sure it would too.”

“Then of course I will. I’ll stop over a day or two, and do all I can,” Boyne assured him, casting plans and dates to the winds.

He was not certain that the appeal had not anticipated a secret yearning of his own; a yearning not so much to postpone his arrival at Cortina (to that he would not confess) as to defer the parting from his new friends, and especially from Judith. The Monreale picnic had been successfully repeated in several other scenes of classic association, and during the gay and clamorous expeditions ashore, and the long blue days on deck, he had been gradually penetrated by the warm animal life which proceeds from a troop of happy healthy children. Everything about the little Wheaters and their “steps” excited his interest and sympathy, and not least the frailness of the tie uniting them, and their determination that it should not be broken. There was something tragic, to Boyne, in the mere fact of this determination — it implied a range of experience and a power of forethought so far beyond a child’s natural imagining. To the ordinary child, Boyne’s memories told him, separation means something too vague to fret about beforehand, and too pleasantly tempered, when it comes, by the excitement of novelty, and the joy of release from routine, to be anything but a jolly adventure. Boyne could not recall that he had ever minded being sent from home (to the seashore, to a summer camp, or to an aunt’s, when a new baby was expected) as long as he was allowed to take his mechanical toys with him. Any place that had a floor on which you could build cranes and bridges and railways was all right: if there was a beach with sand that could be trenched and tunnelled, and water that could be dammed, then it was heaven, even if the porridge wasn’t as good as it was at home, and there was no mother to read stories aloud after supper.

He could only conjecture that what he called change would have seemed permanence to the little Wheaters, and that what change signified to them was something as radical and soul-destroying as it would have been to Boyne to see his mechanical toys smashed, or his white mice left to die of hunger. That it should imply a lasting separation from the warm cluster of people, pets and things called home, would have been no more thinkable to the infant Boyne than permanence was to the infant Wheaters.

Judith had explained that almost all their little friends (usually acquaintances made in the world of Palace Hotels) were in the same case as themselves. As Terry had put it, when you were young you couldn’t expect not to move about; and when Judith proceeded to give Boyne some of the reasons which had leagued her little tribe against the recurrence of such moves he had the sick feeling with which a powerless looker-on sees the torture of an animal. The case of poor Doll Westway, for instance, who was barely a year older than Judith, and whom they had played with for a summer at Deauville; and now —!

Well, it was all a damned rotten business — that was what it was. And Judith’s resolve that her children should never again be exposed to these hazards thrilled Boyne like the gesture of a Joan of Arc. As the character of each became more definite to him, as he measured the distance between Blanca’s cool self-absorption, tempered only by a nervous craving for her twin brother’s approval, and the prodigal self-abandonment of Beechy, as he compared the detached and downright Zinnie to the sinuous and selfish Bun, and watched the interplay of all these youthful characters, he marvelled that the bond of Judith Wheater’s love for them should be stronger than the sum of such heredities. But so it was. He had seen how they could hang together against their sister when some childish whim united them, and now he could imagine what an impenetrable front they would present under her leadership. Of course the Cliffe Wheaters would stay together if their children were determined that they should; and of course they would give Terry a tutor if he wanted one. How was it possible for any one to look at Terry and not give him what he wanted, Boyne wondered? At any rate, he, Boyne, meant to accompany the party to Venice and see the meeting. Incidentally, he was beginning to be curious about seeing the Wheaters themselves.

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