The Children, by Edith Wharton

Book II

IX

The next day, during the journey through the hot Veneto and up into the mountains, the Wheater children and their problems were still so present to Boyne that he was hardly conscious of where he was going, or why.

His last hours with his friends had ended on a note of happiness and security. The new yacht, filled and animated by that troop of irrepressible children, whom it took all Miss Scope’s energy and ubiquity to keep from falling overboard or clambering to the mast~head, seemed suddenly to have acquired a reason for existing. Cliffe Wheater, in his speckless yachting cap and blue serge, moved about among his family like a beneficent giant, and Mrs. Wheater, looking younger than ever in her white yachting skirt and jersey, with her golden thatch tossed by the breeze, fell into the prettiest maternal poses as her own progeny and the “steps” scrambled over her in the course of a rough-and-tumble game organised by Boyne and the young tutor.

The excursion had not begun auspiciously. Before the start from the pension, Bun and Beechy, imprisoned above stairs during Lady Wrench’s irruption, had managed to inflict condign punishment on Zinnie for not having them fetched down with Blanca, and thus making them miss an exciting visit and probable presents. Terry’s indifference to the whole affair produced no effect on the irascible Italians; and as Zinnie, when roused, was a fighter, and now had a gold necklace with real pearls to defend, all Judith’s influence, and some cuffing into the bargain, were needed to reduce the trio to order; after which Boyne had to plead that they should not be deprived of their holiday. But once on the deck of the “Fancy Girl” all disagreements were forgotten. It was a day of wind and sparkle, with a lagoon full of racing waves which made the yacht appear to be actually moving; and after Beechy had drenched her new frock with tears of joy at being reunited to Chipstone, and Blanca and Zinnie had shown Lady Wrench’s presents to every one, from the captain to the youngest cook-boy, harmony once more reigned among the little Wheaters.

Mr. Ormerod, with whom Terry was already at ease, soon broke down the reserve of the others. He proved unexpectedly good at games which involved scampering, hiding and pouncing, especially when Joyce and Judith took part, and could be caught and wrestled with; and Cliffe Wheater, parading the deck with Chip, whom he had adorned with a miniature yachting cap with “Fancy Girl” on the ribbon, was the model of a happy father. He pressed Boyne to chuck his other engagements and come off down the Adriatic as far as Corfu and Athens; and Boyne, lounging there in the bright air, the children’s laughter encircling him, and Judith perched on the arm of his chair, asked himself why he didn’t, and what better life could have to offer. “Uncle Edward would certainly have accepted,” he thought, while his host, pouring himself another cocktail from the deck-table at his elbow, went on persuasively: “We’ll round up a jolly crowd for you, see if we don’t. Somebody’s sure to turn up who’ll jump at the chance. Judy, can’t we hustle around and find him a girl?”

“Here’s all the girl I want,” Boyne laughed, laying his hand on hers; and a blush of pleasure rose to her face. “Oh, Martin — if you would — oh, can’t you?” But even that he had resisted — even the ebb of her colour when he shook his head. The wandering man’s determination to stick to his decisions was strong in him. Too many impulses had solicited him in too many lands: it was because, despite a lively imagination, he had so often managed to resist them, that a successful professional career lay behind him, and ahead — he hoped — comparative leisure, and the haven he wanted.

He had tried to find a farewell present for Judith — some little thing which, in quality if not costliness, should make up for her disappointment at being done out of Lady Wrench’s. Judith’s frank avowal of that disappointment had been a shock to him; but he reflected again what a child she was, and called himself a prig for expecting her standards to be other than those of the world she lived in. After all he had had no time to search for anything rare, and could only push into her hand, at the last moment, a commonplace trinket from the Merceria; but her childish joy in it, and her way of showing that she valued it doubly because it came from him, made the parting from her harder. And now, alone in the dusty train, he was asking himself why he had not stayed in Venice.

As a matter of fact there were several reasons; among them the old~fashioned one that, months before, he had promised to meet Mrs. Sellars in the Dolomites. In a world grown clockless and conscienceless, Boyne was still punctual and conscientious; and in this case he had schooled himself to think that what he most wanted was to see Rose Sellars again. Deep within him he knew it was not so; at least, not certainly so. Life had since given him hints of other things he might want equally, want even more; his reluctance to leave Venice and his newly-acquired friends showed that his inclinations were divided. But he belonged to a generation which could not bear to admit that naught may abide but mutability. He wanted the moral support of believing that the woman who had once seemed to fill his needs could do so still. She belonged to a world so much nearer to his than the Wheaters and their flock that he could not imagine how he could waver between the two. Rose Sellars’s world had always been the pole-star of his whirling skies, the fixed point on which his need for permanence could build. He could only conclude, now, that he combined with the wanderer’s desire for rest the wanderer’s dread of immobility. “Hang it all, you can’t have it both ways,” he rebuked himself; but secretly he knew that that was how the heart of man had always craved it. . .

Had all that happened only forty-eight hours ago? Now, as he sat on the balcony of the châlet, over against the mighty silver and crimson flanks of the Cristallo group, the episode had grown incredibly remote, and Boyne saw his problems float away from him like a last curl of mist swallowed up in the blue behind the peaks.

Simply change of air, he wondered? The sudden rise into this pure ether that was like a shouting of silver trumpets? Partly, perhaps — and all that had chanced to go with it, in this wonderful resurrection of a life he had secretly thought dead.

“Bethesda is what you ought to call this,” he murmured to himself. It was so like Rose Sellars, the live Rose Sellars who had already replaced his delicately embalmed mummy of her, to have found this châlet on the slope above the big hotels, a place so isolated and hidden that he and she were alone in it with each other and the mountains. How could he have so underrated his old friend’s sense of the wonder of the place, and of what she owed to it, as to suppose that, even for two or three weeks, she would consent to be a number in a red-carpeted passage, and feed with the rest of the numbers in a blare of jazz and electricity? The châlet was only just big enough for herself and her maid, and the cook who prepared their rustic meals; had there been a corner for Boyne, she assured him that he should have had it. But perhaps it added to the mystery and enchantment that to see her he had to climb from the dull promiscuity of his hotel into a clear green solitude alive with the tremor of water under meadow-grasses, and guarded by the great wings of the mountains.

“You do really like it?” she had asked, as they sat, the first evening, on the balcony smelling of fir-wood, and watched the cliffs across the valley slowly decompose from flame to ashes.

“I like it most of all for being so like you,” he answered.

She laughed, and turned an amused ironic face on him — a face more than ever like one of those light three-crayon drawings of which she had always reminded him. “Like me? Which — the châlet or the Cristallo group?”

“Well, both; that’s the funny part of it.”

“It must make me seem a trifle out of drawing.”

“No; first aloof and aloft, and then again small and sunny and near.”

She sighed faintly, and then smiled. “Well, I prefer the last part of the picture. I’d a good deal rather be a sunny balcony than a crystal peak. But I enjoy looking out on the peak.”

“There you are — that’s what I meant! It’s the view from YOU that I’ve missed so, all these years.”

She received this in a silence softened by another little laugh. The silence seemed to say: “That will do for our first evening,” the laugh: “But I like it, you know!”

Aloud she remarked: “I’m glad you came up here after Venice and the millionaires. It’s all to the good for the mountains — and for me.”

Their first direct talk about themselves had ended there, drifting away afterward into reminiscences, questions, allusions, the picking up of threads — a gradual leisurely reconstruction of their five years apart. Now, on this second evening, he felt that he had situated her once more in his own life, and established himself in hers. So far he had made no allusion to his unsatisfied passion. In the past, by her own choice, her sternly imposed will, their relation had been maintained in the strict limits of friendship, and for the present he found it easier, more natural, to continue on the same lines. It was neither doubt nor pride that held him back, nor any uncertainty as to her feeling; but simply his sense of the well-being of things as they were. In the course of his life so much easy love had come his way, he had grown so weary of nights without a morrow, that he needed to feel there was one woman in the world whom he was half-afraid to make love to. Rose Sellars had chosen that he should know her only as the perfect friend; just at first, he thought, he would not disturb that carefully built-up picture. If he had suspected a rival influence he would not have tolerated delay; but as they travelled together over her past he grew more and more sure that it was for him the cold empty years of her marriage had kept her. Manlike, he was calmed rather than stimulated by this, though he would have repudiated more indignantly than ever the idea that she was less desirable because she was to be had. As a matter of fact, he found her prettier and younger than when they had parted. Every change in her was to her advantage, and he had instantly discarded his sentimental remembrance of her — dense coils of silvery-auburn hair, and draperies falling to the ankles — in favour of the new woman which her hair, dressed to look short, and her brief skirts, had made of her. Freedom of spirit and of body had mysteriously rejuvenated her, and he found her far more intelligent and adaptable than he had guessed when their relation had been obscured by his passion and her resistance. Now there was no resistance — and his passion lay with folded wings. It was perfect.

Every day they went off on an excursion. Sometimes they hired a motor, leaving it, far afield, for a long climb; but neither could afford such luxuries often, nor did they much care for them. Usually they started on foot, with stick and rucksack, getting back only as the great cliffs hung their last lustre above the valley. Mrs. Sellars was a tireless walker, proud of her light foot and firm muscles. She loved all the delicate detail revealed only to walkers: the thrust of orchis or colchicum through pine-needles, the stir of brooks, the uncurling of perfumed fronds, the whirr of wings in the path, and that continual pulsation of water and wind and grasses which is the heart-beat of the forest. Boyne, always alive to great landscape, had hitherto been too busy or preoccupied to note its particulars. It was years since he had rambled among mountains without having to look at them with an engineering eye, and calculate their relation to a projected railway or aqueduct; and these walks opened his eyes to unheeded beauties. It was like being led through the flowered borders of an illuminated missal of which he had hitherto noticed only the central pictures.

Better still were the evenings. When he first came a full moon held them late on the balcony, listening and musing, and sent him down dizzy with beauty through the black fir-shadows to his hotel. When the moon had waned, and the nights were fresh or cloudy, they sat by the fire, and talked and talked, or turned over new books and reviews. Boyne, with his bones and his brain so full of hard journeys and restless memories, thought he would have liked to look forward to an eternity of such evenings, in just such a hushed lamplit room, with a little sparkle of fire, reviews and papers everywhere, and that quiet silvery-auburn head with its mass of closely woven braids bending over a book across the hearth. Rose Sellars’s way of being silently occupied without seeming absorbed was deeply restful. And then her books! She always managed to have just the ones he wanted to get hold of — to a homeless wandering man it was not the least of her attractions. Once, taking up a volume they had been talking of, Boyne recalled Judith Wheater’s wistful: “Perhaps you might lend me some books.” From what fold of memory had the question — and the very sound of the girl’s voice — come back to him? He was abruptly reminded that it was a long time since he had given a thought to the little Wheaters.

There had been so many years to cover in the exchange of reminiscences that he had not yet touched on his encounter with them; and Mrs. Sellars seemed to have forgotten the description of the little band which had amused her in his letters. But now he was reminded, with a pang, of the contrast between her ordered and harmonious life (she always reminded him of Milton’s “How charming is divine philosophy!”) and the chaotic experiences of the poor little girl who for a moment had displaced her image. Inconceivably vulgar and tawdry, sordid and inarticulate, under all the shouting and the tinsel, seemed that other life and those who led it. Boyne would have brushed the vision away with contempt but for the voice which had called to him out of the blur. With a sigh he put down the book he had opened. Mrs. Sellars, who sat at the table writing, looked up, and their eyes met. “What were you thinking of?”

He had a start of distrust — the first since he had been with her. Would she understand if he tried to explain; if she did, would she sympathize? He shrank from the risk, and evaded it. “Seeing you so hard at work reminds me of all the letters I haven’t written since I’ve been here.”

She arched her eyebrows interrogatively, and he was sure she was thinking: “Why doesn’t he tell me that he’s no one to write to when he’s with me?” Aloud she said: “You know I’m burdened with any number of fond relations who are consumed with the desire to know how I’m spending my first holiday.”

“You’re a wonderful correspondent.”

As if scenting irony she rejoined: “So are you.”

“I haven’t been since I came here.”

“Well, come and share the inkpot.” She made the gesture of pushing it over to him, but he shook his head and stood up. “The night’s too lovely. Put on your cloak and come out on the balcony.”

She held her pen suspended, her eyes following his. “On the balcony? But there’s no moon — ”

“BECAUSE there’s no moon,” he insisted, smiling.

At that, smiling too, she drifted out to him.

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