The Children, by Edith Wharton


Seeing Terry, Boyne had to admit, was the surest way of attaching one, body and soul, to the cause of the little Wheaters. Whatever Mrs. Sellars thought of Judith — a question of obvious uncertainty — there could be no doubt as to what she would think of Terry.

There had been moments during the morning when Boyne did not see how any good will on either part could bridge the distance between Mrs. Sellars’s conception of life, and Judith Wheater’s experience of it; but between Mrs. Sellars and Terry there would be nothing to explain or bridge over. Their minds would meet as soon as their eyes did. “I’ll bring her down to see him after lunch,” Boyne decided.

There was no hope of Terry’s being up that day. The excitement of the flight, and the heat and fatigue of the journey, had used up his small surplus of strength, and he could only lie staring at Boyne with eager eyes, and protest that he knew the air of Cortina would put him all right before long. Scopy had already had the doctor in, and administered suitable remedies, and the patient’s temperature had dropped to nearly normal. “If only father and mother will let us stay here I’m sure I shall be patched up this time. And you’ll be here for a bit to look after the children, won’t you, Martin?”

Boyne said he would stay as long as he could, and at any rate not leave till the little Wheaters’ difficulty with their parents was on the way to adjustment. He pointed out that negotiations would no doubt be necessary, and Terry promptly rejoined: “That’s just why Judy and I decided to come here. We knew that if we could get hold of you, you’d back us up, and help us to make some kind of terms with father and mother.” His eyes fixed his friend’s with a passionate insistence. “You see, Martin, it won’t do, separating us again — it really won’t. We’re not going to get any sort of education at this rate. And as for manners! The children have all been completely demoralised since Zinnia’s visit. Now they’ve heard of Buondelmonte’s marriage, and the steps have gone off their base too; and as for Blanca she thinks of nothing but dressing-up and flirtation . . . As soon as things go wrong between father and mother the children seem to feel it in the air; even before the actual fighting begins, they all get out of hand. Zinnie gave Bun a black eye the other day because he said he was going to be a Prince again, and live in his father’s palace in Rome, and have his own Rolls . . . a child who hardly knows his letters!” Terry concluded with a gesture of contempt.

“I know, old man. It’s all wrong,” Boyne agreed, “and something’s got to be done, and done soon. That’s what I’m going to try to make your father and mother see. Meanwhile you must make the most of this respite to get a good rest. I promise I’ll do what I can when the time comes.”

“Oh, you needn’t promise,” Terry said, letting his head sink back contentedly on the pillows.

On the way up the hill with Judith, Boyne was able to gather some of the details she had been too tired and excited to impart the night before. Miss Scope’s confidences were always in the nature of sombre generalizations. When it came to particulars, she retreated behind professional secrecy; and Boyne had not liked to force her defences. Besides, he knew that no such scruples would hamper Judith, who saw life only in particulars. But, after all, there was nothing very unexpected in Judith’s story. As she said, it was always the same old row over again. As soon as Zinnia Lacrosse had cast a covetous eye on Gerald Ormerod, Joyce had decided that she could not live without him. The thought of his dining every night at the Lido with the Wrenches and the Duke of Mendip, while she and Wheater sat alone on the deck of the “Fancy Girl,” or made the most of such mediocre guests as they could collect, was too much for a high-spirited woman; and Joyce had suddenly requested her husband to sack the tutor. Wheater, surprised, had protested that Terry liked him (and Terry did — he was very jolly, and a good teacher, Judith impartially admitted); whereupon Joyce had declared that if Ormerod wasn’t sent away at once she intended to divorce Wheater and marry him. Wheater, of course, was furious, and there had been, in Judith’s language, an all-round circus, complicated by the fact that what Gerald really wanted was to marry HER—

“What — what? Marry YOU? Have you all of you gone crazy?” Boyne found himself indignantly repeating.

Judith smiled. “I’m not crazy. And I’m nearly sixteen. And I suppose I’m a nairess.” (She pronounced the word as she wrote it.) “But you don’t imagine I’d leave the children, do you? Besides, Terry says it would be ridiculous to marry till I can learn how to spell.”

“My God — I should say it would,” cried Boyne furiously. What on earth would come of it, he asked himself, if she opened the conversation with Mrs. Sellars on this note? “Judith, look here — .”

“But I don’t know, after all,” she went on, in a reflective tone. “Gerald says some of the greatest people never COULD spell. Napoleon couldn’t — or Madame de Sévigné — and Shakespeare signed his name differently every time.”

“I see you’ve taken a course in history since I left,” Boyne sneered; to which she responded with simplicity: “No; but he told me that one day when he found me crying because of my awful spelling.”

“Well, you’re quite right to cry about your spelling. And Terry’s quite right to say that the first thing you want is to have some sort of an education, all of you.”

“Perhaps, then, it would have been better for me to marry Gerald,” she rejoined, with a return of her uncanny impartiality. “But no,” she interrupted herself; “I never could have kept the children if I had; so what’s the use?”

“Well, here we are,” Boyne broke in nervously.

“Why, you poor child, how young you are, after all!” Mrs. Sellars exclaimed, swaying forward to drop an impulsive kiss on Judith’s cheek. Boyne’s first thought was, how young she looked herself, in her thin black dress, her auburn head bent like an elder sister’s above Judith’s; then how much too young Judith was to be conciliated by that form of greeting.

Judith looked at her hostess with a smile. “Young for what?” she asked, with an ominous simplicity.

“Why — for all your responsibilities,” the other answered, checked in her premeditated spontaneity.

Judith was still smiling: a small quiet smile from which the watchful Boyne augured no good.

“I suppose I ought to be flattered,” she said. “I know that at your age and mother’s it’s thought awfully flattering to be called young. But, you see, I’m not sixteen yet, so it’s nothing extraordinary to me.”

“Your being so young makes it extraordinarily kind of you to come and see an old lady like me,” Mrs. Sellars smiled back, taking nervous refuge in platitudes.

Judith considered her with calm velvety eyes. “Oh, but I wanted to come. Martin says you’ll be a friend; and we need friends badly.”

Mrs. Sellars’s eyes at once softened. “Martin’s quite right. I’ll be as good a friend as you’ll let me. I’m so glad you’ve come to share my picnic lunch. And Martin will have told you how sorry I was not to have room for the whole party in this tiny house.”

“Well,” said Judith, “he thought you’d find us rather overwhelming — ”; but Mrs. Sellars laughed this away as an unauthorized impertinence of her old friend’s.

On the whole, things were beginning better than the old friend had expected. He only hoped Rose wouldn’t mind Judith’s chucking down her hat on the sitting-room sofa, and turning to the glass above the mantelpiece to run her fingers through her tossed hair. Once at table, Mrs. Sellars led the talk to the subject of the little Wheaters, whose names she had cleverly managed to master, and whose acquaintance she expressed the wish to make at the earliest opportunity, “steps” and all. “For I assure you,” she added, “I’m not as easily overwhelmed as Martin seems to think.”

Judith was always at her best when she was talking of the children, and especially of Terry, whose name Mrs. Sellars had spoken with a sympathy which brought a glow to the girl’s cheek. “Oh, Terry’s far and away the best of us; you’ll love Terry. If only he could have half a chance. I don’t mean about his health; father and mother have really done all they could about that. But he’s never had any proper education, and he isn’t strong enough yet to go to school.” She went on, forgetting herself and her habit of being on the defensive, carried away by the need to explain Terry, to put him in the handsomest possible light before this friend of Martin’s, who was so evidently a person of standards and principles — like Terry himself. It was just another bit of poor Terry’s bad luck, she pursued; for ever so long he’d been begging and imploring their parents to let him have a good tutor, like other boys of his age who weren’t strong enough for school; and finally they had understood, and agreed that he couldn’t be left any longer to Scopy and the nurses; and then, when the tutor was finally found, and everything working so well, Joyce had to take it into her head to marry him. Didn’t Mrs. Sellars agree that it was a particularly rotten piece of luck?

Yes; Mrs. Sellars did agree. Only, Boyne saw from the curve of her lips, “luck” was not precisely the noun she would have used, nor “rotten” the adjective.

“But surely it’s just a passing whim of — of your mother’s. When it comes to the point, she won’t break up everything in order to marry this young man.”

Judith’s eyes widened. “Well, what can mother do — if she’s in love with him?”

Mrs. Sellars lowered her lids softly, as if she were closing the eyes of a dead self. “Why, she could . . . she could . . . think of all of you, my dear.”

“Oh, she’ll do that,” Judith rejoined. “She has already. She and father are fighting over us now. That’s why we bolted. Hasn’t Martin told you?”

“I think Martin felt he’d rather have you tell me about it yourself — that is, as much as you care to,” said Mrs. Sellars, with tactful evasiveness.

Judith pondered, her brows gathering in a puzzled frown. “I don’t know that there’s anything more to tell. I brought the children away so that we shouldn’t be separated again. If children don’t look after each other, who’s going to do it for them? You can’t expect parents to, when they don’t know how to look after themselves.”

“Ah, my dear,” murmured Mrs. Sellars. With an impulsive movement she put her hand on Judith’s. “Just say that to your mother as you’ve said it to me, and she’ll never give you up for anybody.”

Judith’s frown relaxed, and her eyebrows ran up incredulously. “She has before, you know. What are you to do when you fall in love? That’s one thing I never mean to do,” she announced, in a decisive tone. “Besides, you know,” she went on, “one does get used to children. I suppose you’ve never had any, have you?” Mrs. Sellars made a faint sign of negation. “Oh, well,” Judith continued encouragingly, “I daresay it’s not too late. But if you’d had all of us on your hands, and the three steps besides, you’d probably take us for granted by this time. Not that mother isn’t fond of us — only she has these heart-storms. That’s what poor Doll Westway used to call them. And SHE knew — ”

Mrs. Sellars laid down the spoon with which she was absently stirring her coffee. “Doll Westway —?”

Judith’s face lit up. “You knew her?”

“No,” said Mrs. Sellars, in a tone of rejection acutely familiar to Boyne, but obviously unremarked by the girl.

“She was my very best friend,” Judith went on. “You never saw anybody so lovely to look at. In tea-rose bathing tights — ”

“My dear,” Mrs. Sellars interrupted, “don’t you think it seems a pity to sit indoors in such weather? If you’ve finished your coffee, shall we move out on the balcony? Martin, do find the cigarettes.” Her sweetness suffused them like a silvery icing. Judith, obviously puzzled, rose to follow her, and Boyne distributed cigarettes with a savage energy. Oh, damn it, what had gone wrong again now?

But whatever had gone wrong was, for the moment at any rate, set right by the appearance of a blue-veiled nurse who was conducting a rosy little boy up the slope beneath the balcony. “Hullo! This way — here I am!” Judith joyously signalled to the pair; and Mrs. Sellars, leaning over the railing at her side, instantly declared: “Here’s somebody too beautiful not to be the celebrated Chip.”

Yes; it was clever of Judith to have arranged that Chipstone should appear at that moment. To a childless woman the sight of that armful of health and good humour must be at once a pang and a balm. Mrs. Sellars’s eyes met Boyne’s, smiling, trembling, and his signalled back: “Damn Aunt Julia.” Chipstone had already filled the air with his immovable serenity. They had gone back into the sitting-room to greet him, and he settled himself Buddha-like on Mrs. Sellars’s knee, and laughed with satisfaction at the sight of Judy and Martin and Nanny grouped admiringly before him. Whatever came Chip’s way seemed to turn into something as fresh as new milk with the bubbles on it.

“Oh, Chip’s a good enough fellow,” said Judith, fondly disparaging. “But wait till you see Terry. . .”

“Terry couldn’t come; but the rest of us have,” announced a sharp little voice outside the door.

“Good gracious! If it isn’t Zinnie!” Judith jumped up in a rush of indignation; but before she could reach the door it had opened on the self-possessed figure of her little step-sister, behind whose fiery mop appeared the dark bobbing heads of Bun and Beechy.

“Well, if ever — I never did! Susan swore to me she’d never let ’em out of her sight while we was away,” Nanny ejaculated, paling under Judith’s wrathful glance.

“She never did, neither,” said Zinnie composedly. “She watched us almost all the way; but we could run faster than her, ‘cos she’s got a shoe’t hurts her, ‘n’ so after a while she had to give up chasing us. Didn’t she?” This was flung back to the “steps” for corroboration.

But a masterly somersault had already introduced Bun to the centre front, where he remained head down, bare legs and sandal-soles in air; and Beechy had rushed up to Mrs. Sellars and flung her passionate arms about Chipstone. “Oh, my Cheepo, we thought we’d losted you, and you were dead,” she joyfully wailed; and Chip received her pæan with a rosy grin.

“Yes, ‘n’ Judy hadn’t ought to of sneaked away and left us all like that, ‘n’ not said anything ‘bout coming here, but only ‘ranged for Chip to come and see you, when he’s the youngest of the bunch — ought she of?” Zinnie appealed indignantly to Mrs. Sellars; who replied that it evidently didn’t seem fair, but she must take the blame to herself for living in such a small house that she hadn’t been able to invite them all to lunch because the dining-room wouldn’t have held them. “And I suppose,” she concluded diplomatically, “Chipstone was chosen to represent you because he takes up the least room.”

“No, he doesn’t, either; I do!” shouted Bun, swiftly reversing himself and facing Mrs. Sellars in a challenging attitude. “I can crawl through a croky hoop, and I can — ”

“You can’t hold your tongue, and Chip can, and that’s why I brought him, and not the rest of you,” cried Judith, administering a shake to Bun, while Nanny seized upon Beechy to stifle her incipient howl of sympathy.

“Oh, these dreadful children — .” It was another voice at the door, this time so discreetly pitched, so sweetly deprecating, that Mrs. Sellars instinctively rose to receive a visitor who seemed as little used as herself to noisy company.

“I AM so sorry — .” Blanca was in the room now, slim, white~frocked, imperturbable, with an air of mundane maturity which made Judith seem like her younger sister.

“Poor Susan told me they’d run away from her when they found Nanny was coming here with Chip, and I rushed after them, but couldn’t catch them. I’m sorry, but it wasn’t my fault.” Prettily breathless, she excused herself to Judith; but her long lashes were busy drawing Mrs. Sellars and Boyne into their net. “Darling Martin!” She bestowed on him one of her mother’s most studied intonations. “I’m Terry’s twin,” she explained to Mrs. Sellars.

The latter, at ease with graces so like her own, replied with a smile that, since Terry could not come, she appreciated his sending such a charming delegate. Judith shot a grimace at Boyne, but Blanca, with a sudden rush of sincerity, declared: “Oh, but when you’ve seen Terry you won’t care for any of the rest of us.”

“Yes, she will; she’ll care for Beechy and me because we’re Roman Princes!” Bun shouted, threatening another handspring which a gesture from Judith curtailed.

Zinnie pushed him aside and planted herself firmly in front of their hostess. “My mother could buy ’em all out if she wanted to, ‘cos she’s a movie star,” she affirmed in her thin penetrating voice. “But I’d never let her, ‘cos we all love each other very much, ‘n’ Judy’s made us all swear on Scopy’s book we’d stay together till we got married. I’m probably going to marry Bun.”

At this announcement signs of damp despair revealed themselves on Beechy’s features; but Bun, regardless of the emotions he excited, interposed to say: “My REAL mother was a lion-tamer; but that don’t matter, ‘cos she’s dead.”

Mrs. Sellars had risen to the occasion on one of her quick wing~beats. Games, tea and more games had been improvised with the promptness and skill which always distinguished her in social emergencies; and the afternoon was nearly over when a band of replete and sleepy children took their way home to the Pension Rosenglüh. On the threshold of the châlet Zinnie paused to call up to the balcony: “I s’pose ‘f you’d known we were coming you’d have had some presents ready for us — .” A cuff from Judith nipped the suggestion, and the flock was hurried off down the hill, but not too quickly to catch Mrs. Sellars’s response: “Come up to-morrow and you’ll see!”

Mrs. Sellars, however, did not wait till the next day to return the little Wheaters’ visit. Soon after their departure she gathered up an armful of books, selected for Terry’s special delectation, and walked down to the pension with Boyne. The younger children were by this time at supper; but the visitor was introduced to Miss Scope, and conducted by her to Terry’s bedside. Neither Judith nor Boyne accompanied her, since the doctor did not want his patient to see many people till he had recovered from his fatigue. Mrs. Sellars, for this reason, remained only for a few minutes with the little boy, and when she rejoined Boyne, who was waiting for her at the gate, she said simply: “I’m glad I came.” Boyne liked her for knowing that he would guess the rest. He had never had any doubts about this meeting.

When he got back to his hotel he found the telegram which he had been expecting since the morning. “For God’s sake wire at once if children with you and Chipstone all right worried to death cannot understand insane performance police traced them to Padua where they hired motors for Botzen please ship them all back immediately will wire you funds. Wheater.”

“Damn it — well, I’ll have to go and see him myself,” Boyne muttered, crumpling up the paper and jamming it into his pocket. The message had shattered his dream-paradise of a day, and now the sooner the business ahead of him was over the better for everybody. But with a certain satisfaction he concluded, after a glance at the clock: “Too late to wire tonight, anyhow.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02