The Children, by Edith Wharton


Boyne knew that “morning,” in the vocabulary of the Lido, could not possibly be construed as meaning anything earlier than the languid interval between cocktails and lunch, or the still more torpid stretch of time separating the process of digestion from the first afternoon bath. All his energies were bent on getting the Wheaters to fix on one or the other of these parentheses as the most suitable in which to examine the question of their children’s future; and he accounted himself lucky when they finally agreed to meet him in a quiet corner of the hotel lounge before luncheon.

Unfortunately for this plan, no corner of the lounge — or of its adjacent terraces — could be described as quiet at that particular hour. The whole population of the “Palace” was thronging back through its portals in quest of food and drink. Hardly had Boyne settled Mr. and Mrs. Wheater in their fathomless armchairs (his only hope of keeping them there lay in the difficulty of getting up in a hurry) when Lady Wrench drifted by, polishing her nails with a small tortoiseshell implement, and humming a Negro Spiritual in her hoarse falsetto.

“Goodness — what you people doing over here, plotting together in a corner? Look as if you were rehearsing for a film. . .” She stopped, wide-eyed, impudent, fundamentally indifferent to everything less successful than her own success.

“I don’t know what we ARE doing,” Joyce returned with a touch of irritability. “Martin seems to think he ought to tell us how to bring up the children.” It obviously seemed preposterous to her that Zinnia Wrench should be idling about, polishing her nails and humming tunes, while this severe mental effort was exacted of one who, the night before, had been up as late, and danced as hard, as the other.

“Something’s GOT to be decided,” Wheater growled uncertainly.

“Oh, well — so long,” smiled Lady Wrench. “I’m off to see Mendip’s new tent; the one he’s just got over from: where is it? Morocco, I guess he said. But isn’t that a sort of leather? Somewhere in South Africa, anyhow . . . They’re just rigging it up. It’s a wonder.”

“A new tent?” Joyce’s face lit up with curiosity, and the scattered desire to participate in everything that was going.

“Yes; absolutely different from anything you’ve ever seen. The very last thing. Sort of black Cubist designs on it. Might give Anastase ideas for a bath-wrap. Hullo, Gerald — that you? I’ve been looking for you everywhere; thought you’d got drowned. Come along and see Mendip’s tent.”

Joyce raised a detaining hand. “Gerald — Mr. Ormerod! Please. I want you to stay here. We’re discussing something about which I may need your advice.”

“Oh, look here, Joyce, I say — ” her husband interrupted.

His wife gave him a glance of aggrieved dignity. “You don’t want me to be without advice, I suppose? You’ve got Martin’s.”

Wheater groaned: “This isn’t going to be a prize fight, is it?”

“I don’t know. It might. Sit down, please, Gerald.”

Mrs. Wheater indicated an armchair beside her own, and Ormerod reluctantly buried his long limbs in it. “In this heat — ” he murmured.

“Oh, well, s’long,” cried Lady Wrench, evaporating.

“Joyce — Cliffe! Look here: have you seen Mendip’s new tent?” Mrs. Lullmer, exquisite, fadeless, her scant bathing tights inadequately supplemented by a transparent orange scarf, paused in a plastic attitude before the besieged couple. “Do let’s rush down and take a look at it before cocktails. Come on, Cliffe.”

Mrs. Wheater drew her lips together, and a slow wave of crimson rose to her husband’s perspiring temples.

“See here, Syb; we’re talking business.”

“Business?” Instantly Mrs. Lullmer’s vaporous face became as sharp~edged as a cameo, and her eyes narrowed into two observation-slits. “Been put on to something good, have you? I’m everlastingly broke. For God’s sake tell me!” she implored.

Wheater laughed. “No. We’re only trying to settle about the children.”

“The children? Do you mean to say you’re talking about them still? That reminds me — where’s my own child? Pixie, pet! Ah, there she is. Darling, nip up to my room, will you, and get mummy one of those new lipsticks: no, not Baiser Défendu, sweet, but Nouveau Péché — you know, the one that fits into the gold bag the Duke gave me yesterday.”

An ethereal sprite, with a pre-Raphaelite bush of fair hair, and a tiny sunburnt body, detached herself from a romp with a lift-boy to spring away at her mother’s behest.

“Pixie’s such a darling — always does just as I tell her. If only my poor Doll had listened to me!” Mrs. Lullmer observed to Boyne, with a retrospective sigh which implied that the unhappy fate of her eldest daughter had been the direct result of resistance to the maternal counsels.

“Well — as I was saying — ” Boyne began again, nervously. . .

But a fresh stream of bathers, reinforced by a troop of arrivals from Venice who had steamed over to the Lido for lunch, closed in vociferously about the Wheaters, and at the same instant the big clock on the wall rang out the stroke of one.

“See here, old Martin — this is no time for business, is it? I believe Joyce has asked half of these people to lunch,” Wheater confessed to his friend with a shamefaced shrug. “But afterward — ”

“All right. Afterward.”

Lunch was over; the Duke’s tent had been visited; and one by one the crowd in restaurant and grill-room had dispersed for bathing or bridge.

“Why not here?” Boyne suggested patiently to Mrs. Wheater.

“Here?” She paused under the lifted flap of the stately Moroccan tent, her astonishingly youthful figure outlined against the glitter of the sands.

“Why not?” Boyne persisted. “It’s cool and quiet, and nobody is likely to bother us. Why shouldn’t you and Cliffe go into this question with me now?”

She wavered, irresolute. “Where’s Cliffe, to begin with? Oh, out there — under Syb’s umbrella, of course. I’M perfectly willing, naturally — ”

“Very well; I’ll go and recruit him.”

Boyne threaded his way between the prone groups on the beach to where Mrs. Lullmer lay, under the shadow of a huge orange-coloured umbrella, with Cliffe Wheater outspread beside her like a raised map of a mountainous country.

“I say, Cliffe, Joyce is waiting for you in the Duke’s tent — for our talk.”

Wheater raised a portion of his great bulk on a languid elbow. “What talk? . . . Oh, all right.” His tone implied that, at the moment, it was distinctly all wrong; but he got slowly to his feet, gave himself a shake, lit a cigarette, and shambled away after Boyne. At the tent door Mrs. Lullmer swiftly overtook them. “I suppose you don’t mind — ” she smiled at Joyce; and Wheater muttered, half to his wife and half to Boyne: “She’s had so much experience with children.”

“All I want is what is best for mine,” said Mrs. Wheater coldly; adding, as they re-entered the tent: “Martin, you’ll find Gerald somewhere about. Won’t you please tell him to come?”

Wheater gave an angry shrug, and then settled down resignedly on one of the heaps of embroidered Moroccan cushions disposed about the interior of the tent. Boyne’s first inclination was to come back empty-handed from a simulated quest for Ormerod; but, reflecting that if he did so Joyce would seize on this as another pretext for postponement, he presently returned accompanied by the tutor, in whose wake Lady Wrench trailed her perfumed elegance. “See here, folks, I guess if anybody’s got a right to be here I have,” she announced with a regal suavity. “That is, if you’re proposing to make plans about my child.”

This argument seemed — even to Boyne — incontrovertible; and Lady Wrench sank down upon her cushions with a smile of triumph.

“Pity Buondelmonte’s not here,” Wheater growled under his breath to Boyne; and Lady Wrench, catching the name, instantly exclaimed: “But Wrenny is — I left him this minute at the bar; and I don’t see why I shouldn’t have my own husband’s advice about my own child.”

It was finally conceded that the benefit of Lord Wrench’s judgment could not properly be denied to his wife; and, as Lord Wrench and the Duke of Mendip were too inseparable to be detached from one another on so trivial a pretext, and as the conference was taking place in the shelter of the Duke’s own tent, it surprised no one — not even Boyne — when the two gentlemen strolled in together, and accommodated themselves on another pile of cushions. “Mendip wants to see how these things are done in America,” Lord Wrench explained, before composing himself into a repose which seemed suspiciously like slumber; while the small dry-lipped Duke mumbled under his brief moustache: “Might come in useful — you never know.”

“I’m sure I don’t know exactly what we’re supposed to be talking about,” Joyce Wheater began. “I’ve said a hundred times that all I care for is what’s best for the children. Everybody knows I’ve sacrificed everything for that once before. And what earthly use has it been?”

“Ah, that’s what I say,” Lady Wrench agreed with sudden sympathy. “You might cut yourself in pieces for a man, and his dirty lawyers would come and take your child away from you the next day, and haggle over every cent of alimony. But if it comes to money, I’ll spend as much as anybody — ”

“Oh, shut up, Zinnia,” her husband softly intervened, and redisposed himself to rest.

“I don’t think you ought any of you to look at the matter from a legal stand-point,” Boyne interrupted. “My friends here are awfully fond of their children, and we all know they want what’s best for them. The only question is how that best is to be arrived at. It seems to me perfectly simple — ”

(“Solomon,” said the Duke, with his dry smile.)

“No. Exactly the reverse. Division is what I’m here to fight against — no; not fight but plead.” Boyne turned to Cliffe Wheater. “For God’s sake, old man, let the lot of them stay together.”

“Why, they WERE together; they would have been, as long as they’d stayed with me,” Wheater grumbled helplessly.

His wife reared her golden crest with a toss of defiance. “You don’t suppose for a minute I’m going to abandon my children to the kind of future Cliffe Wheater’s likely to provide for them? Gerald and I are prepared — ”

“So are Cliffe and I,” murmured Mrs. Lullmer, with a glance at the Duke under her studied lashes. The Duke threw back his head, and became lost in an inspection of the roof of the tent. “Cliffe and I,” repeated Mrs. Lullmer, more incisively.

“Well, and what about me and Wrenny, I’d like to know?” Lady Wrench broke in. “I guess I can afford the best lawyers in the country — ”

“I don’t see that the law concerns these children,” Boyne intervened. “What they need is not to be fought over, but just to be left alone. Judith and Terry understand that perfectly. They know there is probably going to be another change in their parents’ lives, but they want to remain together, and not be affected by that change. I’m not here to theorise or criticise — I’m simply here as the children’s spokesman. They’re devoted to each other, and they want to stay together. Between you all, can’t it be managed somehow — for a time, at any rate?”

“But my Pixie would be such a perfect little companion for Terry and Blanca. She knows all the very nicest children everywhere. That’s one of the great advantages of hotel life, isn’t it? And, after all, Judith may be marrying soon, and then what will become of the others?” Mrs. Lullmer turned a meaning smile on Boyne. “Haven’t YOU perhaps thought of Judith’s marrying soon, Mr. Boyne?”

Boyne curtly replied that he hadn’t; and Lady Wrench intervened: “I want my Zinnie to have a lovely simple home life, out on our ranch in California. This kicking about in hotels is too horribly demoralising for children.” She bent her great eyes gently on Mrs. Lullmer. “You know something about that, Mrs. Lullmer.”

Mrs. Lullmer returned a look as gentle. “Oh, no; my children were never on a ranch at Hollywood,” she said.

“Hollywood — Hollywood!” gasped Lady Wrench, paling with rage.

Mrs. Lullmer arched her delicate brows interrogatively. “Isn’t Hollywood in California? Stupid of me! I was never in the West myself.”

Joyce Wheater raised herself on her elbow. “I’m sure I don’t see the use of this. Four of the children are mine and Cliffe’s. I’ve always tried to make them all happy. I’ve treated Zinnie, and Buondelmonte’s children, exactly like my own; and this is all the thanks I get for it! No one could be more competent than Gerald to direct Terry’s education; which is something his father never happens to have thought of. But of course everybody here is trying to put me in the wrong. . .”

Mrs. Lullmer looked her soft surprise. “Oh, no. Don’t say that, Joyce. All I feel is that perhaps the poor babies haven’t been quite loved enough. You don’t mind my suggesting it, do you? If they were mine, I don’t think I should care so awfully much about making them into high-brows. What I should want would be just to see them all healthy and rosy and happy, and romping about all day like my little Pixie. . .”

“With lift-boys and barmen. Yes; I guess that IS about the best preparation for life in the smart set,” said Lady Wrench parenthetically.

Mrs. Lullmer smiled. “Yes; Pixie’s little friends are all in what I believe you call the ‘smart set.’ I confess I think that even more important for a child than learning that Morocco is not in South Africa.”

“Not in South Africa? Where is it, then, I’d like to know? Wrenny, you told me — ”

“Well,” said the Duke, getting up, “I’m off for a swim.”

This announcement instantly disorganised the whole group. Nothing — as Boyne had already had occasion to remark — chilled their interest in whatever they were doing as rapidly as the discovery that one of the party had had enough of it, and was moving on to the next item of the day’s programme. And no one could dislocate a social assemblage as quickly as the Duke of Mendip. The shared sense that wherever he was, there the greatest amount of excitement was obtainable, dominated any divergence of view among his companions. Even Lord Wrench roused himself from his slumbers and gathered up his long limbs for instant departure, and his wife and Mrs. Lullmer followed his example.

“Mercy, what time is it? Why, there’s that diving match off Ella Muncy’s raft!” Lady Wrench exclaimed. “I’ve got fifty pounds on the Grand Duke; and directly afterward there’s the mannequin show for the smartest bathing-dresses; I’ve given a prize for that myself.”

Mrs. Lullmer had taken a stick of rouge from her mesh-bag, and was critically redecorating her small pensive face. “Coming, Cliffe?” she negligently asked. “You’re one of the judges of the diving match, aren’t you?”

Cliffe Wheater had scrambled heavily to his feet, and stood casting perplexed glances about him. “I did say I’d be, I believe. Damn it all — I’d no idea it was so late. . .”

“It’s always late in this place. I don’t see how we any of us stand it,” murmured Mrs. Lullmer. “I always say we’re the real labouring classes.”

Joyce Wheater still sat negligently reclined. “Very well, then; I suppose we may consider the matter settled.”

“Settled — settled? Why, what do you mean?” Wheater stammered uneasily from the threshold.

“We came here to decide about the children, I believe. I assume that you agree that I’m to keep my own.”

“Keep them? Keep them? I agree to no such thing. Martin, here, knows what my conditions are. I’ve never agreed to any others, and never shall — ”

“Ormerod! Ormerod! Where the deuce is Gerald Ormerod? He’s next on the diving programme, and Mrs. Muncy’s just sent word to say that everything’s being held up — oh, here you are, Gerald! Come along, for God’s sake, or I shall catch it. . .”

A bronzed young amphibian, dripping and sputtering from the sea, had snatched back the tent flap, singled out Gerald Ormerod, still supine in his corner, and dragged him to his feet. “Dash it, wake up, old man, or there’ll be no end of a rumpus.”

Joyce Wheater sprang into sudden activity. “Gerald, Gerald — but of course you mustn’t miss your turn! Cliffe, is the launch there to take us out to the raft? How can I have forgotten all about it?” She addressed herself plaintively to Boyne. “That’s what always happens — whenever there’s any question of the children, I forget about everything else. . .”

Wheater laid a persuasive hand on Boyne’s shoulder. “You see how it is, old man. In this hell of a place there’s never any time for anything. See here — come along with us to this diving match, won’t you? The sea’s so calm I’ve had the launch lying to out there ever since lunch; we’ll be out at the raft in no time . . . No? You won’t? Well — sorry . . . it’s a pretty sight. To-morrow then . . . Oh, you’re really off to-morrow morning, are you? Can’t see why you don’t stay on a day or two, now you’re here. Of course the children are all right where they are for the present — we all know that. And if you stayed on for a day or two we could go into the whole thing quietly . . . No? Well, then — why, yes, tonight, of course. Tell you what, old man: you and Joyce and I will go out to the ‘Fancy Girl’ after dinner, and talk the whole thing out by ourselves. That suit you?”

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