The Children, by Edith Wharton


“Damn — damn, damn — oh, DAMN!” It seemed to be the only expletive at Cliffe Wheater’s command, and Boyne felt that he had used it so often that it was as worn out as an old elastic band, and no longer held his scattered ideas together.

He plunged down into an armchair of the Lido Palace lounge — the Wheaters had moved out to the Lido — and sat there, embraced by a cluster of huge leather bolsters, his good-humoured lips tinged with an uneasy purple, the veins in his blond temples swollen with a helpless exasperation. “Damn!” he ejaculated again.

The place was empty. It was the hour of the afternoon sun-bath on the sands below the hotel, and no one shared with them the cool twilight of the hall but a knot of white-jacketed boys languishing near the lift, and a gold-braided porter dozing behind his desk.

Boyne sat opposite to Wheater, in another vast slippery armchair to which only a continual muscular effort could anchor his spare frame. He sat and watched Cliffe Wheater with the narrow-lipped attention he might have given to the last stages of a debate with a native potentate on whom he was trying to impose some big engineering scheme which would necessitate crossing the ruler’s territory.

But with the potentate it would have been only a question of matching values; of convincing him of the material worth of what was offered. In such negotiations the language spoken, when interpreted, usually turned out to be the same. But in his talk with Wheater, Boyne had the sense of using an idiom for which the other had no equivalents. Superficially their vocabularies were the same; below the surface each lost its meaning for the other. Wheater continued to toss uneasily on a sea of incomprehension.

“What in hell can I do about it?” he demanded.

It was almost unintelligible that anything should have happened to him against which his wealth and his health could not prevail. His first idea seemed to be that it must be all a mistake — or somebody else’s damned negligence. As if they had forgotten to set the burglar alarm, or to order the motor, or to pay the fire-insurance, or to choke off a bore at the telephone, or, by some other unstopped fissure in the tight armour of his wellbeing, had suddenly let tribulation in on him. If he could get at the offender — if he only could! But it was the crux of his misery that apparently he couldn’t —

“Not that I blame the child,” he said suddenly, looking down with an interrogative stare at his heavy blond-haired hands, with their glossy nails and one broad gold ring with an uncut sapphire. He raised his eyes and examined Boyne, who instantly felt himself leaping to the guard of his own face.

“That business of the money — you understand, Judith didn’t in the least realise. . .” Boyne began.

“Oh, damn the money.” That question was swept away with a brush of the hand: Boyne had noticed that the poor little letter of confession he had extracted from Judith had received hardly a glance from her father, who had pocketed the bank-notes as carelessly as if they were a gambling debt. Evidently the Lido Palace values were different. It was the hideous inconvenience of it all that was gnawing at Wheater — and also, to be fair to him, a vague muddled distress about his children. “I didn’t know the poor little chaps cared so much,” was all this emotion wrung from him; none the less, Boyne felt, it was sincere.

“They care most awfully for each other — and very much for you and Joyce. What they need beyond everything is a home: a home with you two at its head.”

“Oh, damn,” Wheater groaned again. It was as if Boyne had proposed to him to ascend the throne of England. What was the use of dealing in impossibles? There were things which even his money couldn’t buy — and when you stripped him of the sense of its omnipotence he squirmed like a snail out of its shell.

“Why can’t there not be rows?” he began again, perspiring with the oppression of his helplessness.

“There wouldn’t be, if you and Joyce would only come to an understanding.”

The aggrieved husband met this derisively. “Joyce — and an understanding!”

“Well — she’s awfully fond of the children; and so are you. And they’re devoted to both of you, all of them. Why can’t you and she agree to bury your differences, and arrange your lives so that you can keep the children together, and give them something that looks like a home, while you both . . . well, do whatever you like . . . privately. . .” Boyne felt his lips drying as they framed this arid proposal.

Wheater leaned his elbows on his knees and gazed at the picture presented. “Joyce doesn’t care to do what she likes privately,” he replied, without irony.

“But the children — I’m sure she doesn’t want to part with them.”

“No; and no more do I. And what’s more, I won’t!” He brought down a clenched fist on the leather protuberance at his elbow. It sank in soggily, as if the Lido armchair had been the symbol of Joyce’s sullen opposition. “By God, I can dictate my terms,” Wheater pursued, sonorously but without conviction.

Boyne stood up with a sense of weariness. His bones felt as stiff as if he had been trying to hang on to a jagged rock above a precipice; his mind participated in their ache.

“Look here, Cliffe, what’s the use of threats? Of course you’re all-powerful. Between you, Joyce and you can easily destroy these children’s lives. . .”

“Oh, see here!” Wheater protested.

“Destroy their lives. Look at that poor Doll Westway, who was kicked about from pillar to post . . . Judith told me her miserable story. . .”

“I don’t see the resemblance. And what’s more I strongly object to being classed with a down-and-outer like Charlie Westway. Why, man, no law-court in the world would have given a blackguard like that the custody of his children. Whereas mine will always be perfectly safe in my hands, and Joyce knows it; and so do her lawyers.”

“I daresay; but the trouble is that the children need Joyce at least as much as they do you. And they need something that neither one of you can give them separately. They need you and Joyce together: that’s what a home is made of — togetherness . . . the mysterious atmosphere. . .” Boyne broke off, nervously swallowing his own eloquence.

Wheater gave him a helpless look. “Have a drink?” he suggested. He waved his hand to the white-coated guardians of the lift. Far off across the empty reaches of the hall a waiter appeared with napkin and tray — sail and raft of a desert ocean. “Hi!” Wheater called out feverishly. Boyne wondered that he did not brandish his handkerchief at the end of a stick. The two men drank in a desperate silence.

Capturing Joyce’s attention was less easy. It was difficult even to secure her presence. Not that she avoided her husband — on the contrary, she devoted all the time she could spare to arguing with him about their future arrangements. And she had flung herself on Boyne in an agony of apprehension about the children. But once assured of their safety she remarked that their going off like that had served Cliffe right, and she hoped it would be a lesson to him; and thereupon hurried away to a pressing engagement on the beach, promising Boyne to see him when she came up to dress for dinner — anywhere between eight and nine. She supposed Cliffe would look after him in the interval?

It was nearer nine than eight when Boyne finally waylaid her in an upper corridor, on the way back to her room. She relegated him to her sitting-room while she got out of her bathing tights, and presently reappeared swathed in perfumed draperies, with vivid eyes, tossed hair as young as Judith’s, and the animating glow imparted by a new love-affair. Boyne remembered Terry’s phrase: “With all the new ways the doctors have of making parents young again,” and reflected that this oldest one of all was still the most effective. She threw herself down on a lounge, clasped her arms behind her head, and declared: “It was too clever of Judith to give her father that scare. Now perhaps he’ll come to his senses.” Yes, Boyne thought — she was going to be more difficult to convince than Wheater.

“What do you call coming to his senses?”

“Why, giving all the children to me, of course — to me and Gerald.” Her lids closed softly on the name. Boyne was frightened by a reminder of Judith’s way of caressing certain thoughts and images with her lashes. He hated anything in the mother that recalled what he most loved in her daughter. . .

“The trouble is, Joyce, that what they want — what they need — is not you and . . . and anybody else . . . but just you and Cliffe: their parents.”

“Me and Cliffe! An edifying spectacle!”

“Oh, well, they’ve discounted all that — at least Judith and Terry have. And they’re incurably fond of you both. What the younger ones require, of course, is just the even warmth of a home — like any other young animals.”

She considered her shining nails, as if glassing her indolent beauty in them.

“You see,” Boyne pressed on, “it’s all these changes of temperature that are killing them.”

“What changes of temperature?”

“Well, every time there’s a new deal — I mean a new step-parent — there’s necessarily a new atmosphere, isn’t there? Young things, you know, need sameness — it’s their vital element.”

Joyce, at this point, surprised him by abounding in his own sense. It was never she who wanted to change, she assured him. Hadn’t she come back of her own accord to Cliffe, and loyally made the attempt all over again — just on account of the children? And what had been the result, as far as they were concerned? Simply their being compelled to assist, with older and more enlightened eyes, at the same old rows and scandals (for Cliffe WAS scandalous) which had already edified their infancy. Could Boyne possibly advise the renewal of such conditions as a “vital element” in their welfare, the poor darlings? It would be the most disastrous experiment that could be made with them. Whereas, if they would just firmly declare their determination to remain with Joyce, and only with Joyce, Cliffe would soon come to his senses — and, anyhow, as soon as another woman got hold of him, he wouldn’t know what to do with the children, and would be only too thankful to know they were in safe hands. And had Boyne considered what a boon it would be to dear Terry to have Gerald always with him, not as a salaried tutor, but, better still, as friend, companion, guardian — as everything his own father had failed to be? Boyne must have seen what a fancy Terry had taken to Gerald. And Gerald simply loved the boy. That consideration, Joyce owned, had influenced her not a little in her determination to break with Wheater.

Joyce was much more articulate than her husband, and, paradoxical as it seemed, proportionately harder to deal with. She swept away all Boyne’s arguments on a torrent of sentimental verbiage; and she had the immense advantage over Wheater of believing that the children would be perfectly happy with her, whereas Wheater merely believed in his right to keep them, whether his doing so made them happy or not.

But these considerations were interrupted by Joyce’s abrupt exclamation that it was past nine already, and the Wrenches and the Duke of Mendip were waiting for her . . . of course dear Martin would join them at dinner? . . . No; Martin thought he wouldn’t, thanks; in fact, he’d already promised Cliffe. . .

“But Cliffe’s coming too. Oh, you didn’t know? My dear, he’s infatuated with Sybil Lullmer. She came here to try and catch Mendip, and failing that she’s quietly annexed Cliffe instead. Rather funny, isn’t it? But of course that kind of woman sticks at nothing. With her record, why should she? And Cliffe has had to make up with Zinnia Wrench because it was the easiest way of being with Sybil . . . So you will dine with us, Martin, won’t you? And do tell me — you’re sure Chip’s perfectly contented? And you think Cortina will do Terry good?”

Half an hour later, Boyne, who had sternly told himself that this also was part of the game, sat at a table in the crowded Lido Palace restaurant, overhanging the starlit whisper of the Adriatic. His seat was between Zinnia Lacrosse and Joyce Wheater, and opposite him was a small sleek creature, who reminded him, when she first entered, of Judith — who had the same puzzled craving eyes, the same soft shadowy look amid the surrounding glare. But when he faced her across the table, saw her smile, heard her voice, he was furious with himself for the comparison.

“Do you mean to say you don’t know Syb Lullmer?” Joyce whispered to him under cover of the saxophones. “But you must have heard of her as Mrs. Charlie Westway? She always manages to be in the spot~light. Her daughter Doll committed suicide last year at Deauville. It was all pretty beastly. Syb herself is always chock full of drugs. Doesn’t look it, does she? She might be Judy’s age . . . in this light. What do you think of her?”

“I think she’s hideous.”

Mrs. Wheater stared. “Well, the dress-makers don’t. They dress her for nothing. Look at her ogling Gerald! That’s what makes Cliffe so frantic,” Cliffe’s wife smilingly noted. After a moment she added: “A nice stepmother for my children! Do you wonder I’m putting up a fight to keep them?”

From across the table Mrs. Lullmer was speaking in a low piercing whine. When she spoke her large eyes became as empty as a medium’s, and her lips moved just enough to let out a flat knife~edge of voice. “I told Anastase I’d never speak to him again, or set foot in his place, if ever I caught him selling one of the dresses he’d designed for me to a respectable woman; and he said: ‘Why, I never saw one in my establishment: did you?’ And I said to him: ‘Now you’ve insulted me, and I’ll sue you for libel if you don’t take fifty per cent off my bill.’ I’m poor, you see,” Mrs. Lullmer concluded plaintively, sweeping the table with her disarming gaze. The Duke, Zinnia, Lord Wrench and Cliffe Wheater received the anecdote with uproarious approval. Gerald Ormerod looked at the ceiling, and Joyce looked tenderly at Gerald. “I got off twenty-five per cent anyhow,” Mrs. Lullmer whined, spreading her fluid gaze over Boyne. . .

All about them, at other tables exactly like theirs, sat other men exactly like Lord Wrench and Wheater, the Duke of Mendip and Gerald Ormerod, other women exactly like Joyce and Zinnia and Mrs. Lullmer. Boyne remembered Mrs. Sellars’s wail at the approach of a standardised beauty. Here it was, in all its mechanical terror — endless and meaningless as the repetitions of a nightmare. Every one of the women in the vast crowded restaurant seemed to be of the same age, to be dressed by the same dress-makers, loved by the same lovers, adorned by the same jewellers, and massaged and manipulated by the same Beauty doctors. The only difference was that the few whose greater age was no longer disguisable had shorter skirts, and exposed a wider expanse of shoulder-blade. A double jazz-band drowned their conversation, but from the movement of their lips, and the accompanying gestures, Boyne surmised that they were all saying exactly the same things as Joyce and Zinnie and Mrs. Lullmer. It would have been unfashionable to be different; and once more Boyne marvelled at the incurable simplicity of the corrupt. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” he thought, “for they have so many more things to talk about. . .”

Out in the offing the lights of the “Fancy Girl” drew an unheeded triangle of stars, cruising up and down against the dusk. A breeze, rising as darkness fell, carried the reflection toward the shore on a multitude of little waves; but the sea no longer interested the diners, for it was not the hour when they used it.

“I say — why shouldn’t we go and finish our cigars on board?” Cliffe Wheater proposed, yearning, as always, to have his new toy noticed. The night was languid, the guests were weary of their usual routine of amusements, and the party, following the line of least resistance, drifted down to the pier, where the “Fancy Girl” ‘s launch lay mingling the glitter of its brasses with the glow of constellations in the ripples.

“To-morrow morning, old man,” Wheater said, his arm in Boyne’s, “we’ll have it all out about the children . . .”

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