The Children, by Edith Wharton


Recent memories of Armistice Day — remote ones of Mafeking Night, which he had chanced to experience in London — paled for Boyne in the uproar raised by the little Wheaters when, entering their pension dining-room, he told them that everything was all right.

He had not imagined that seven could be so many. The miracle of the loaves and fishes seemed as nothing to the sudden multiplication of arms, legs and lungs about that rural supper-table. At one end of the expanse of coarse linen and stout crockery, Miss Scope, rigid and spectacled, sat dispensing jam without fear or favour; at the other Judith was cutting bread and butter in complete unawareness of her immortal model. Between the two surged a sea of small heads, dusky, ruddy, silver-pale, all tossing and mixing about the golden crest of Chipstone, throned in his umpire’s chair. For a moment, as usual, Bun and Zinnie dominated the scene; then Terry, still pale, but with new life in his eyes, caught his cap from the rack with a call for three cheers to which the others improvised a piercing echo. (“Luckily we’re the only boarders just now,” Miss Scope remarked to Boyne as he pressed her hand.)

In this wonderful world nobody asked any questions; nobody seemed to care for any particulars; their one thought was to bestow on their ambassador the readiest token of their gratitude, from Blanca’s cool kiss to the damp and strangulating endearments of Beechy. To Boyne it was literally like a dip into a quick sea, with waves that burnt his eyes, choked his throat and ears, but stung him, body and brain, to fresh activity. “And now let’s kiss him all over again — and it’s my turn first!” Zinnie rapturously proposed; and as he abandoned himself once more to the battering of the breakers he caught a small voice piping: “We suppose you’ve brought some presents for us, Martin.”

The law which makes men progressively repeople the world with persons of their own age and experience had led Boyne, as he grew older, to regard human relations as more and more ruled by reason; but whenever he dipped into the universe of the infant Wheaters, where all perspective ceased, and it was far more urgent to know what presents he had brought than what fate had been meted out to them by their respective parents, he felt the joy of plunging back into reality.

The presents were there, and nobody had been forgotten, as the rapid unpacking of a small suit-case showed — nobody, that is, but Judith, who stood slightly apart, affecting an air of grown-up amusement, while Blanca and the little girls were hung with trinkets, and Bun made jubilant by an electric lamp. Even Miss Scope had an appropriate reticule, Nanny a lavishly garnished needle-case; and the bottom of the box was crammed with books for Terry.

The distributing took so long, and the ensuing disputes and counter~claims were so difficult of adjustment, that twilight was slipping down the valley when Boyne said to Judith: “Come and take a turn, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

They walked along the road to a path which led up the hillside opposite to the hotels, and from there began to mount slowly toward the receding sunlight. Judith, unasked, had slipped her arm through Boyne’s, and the nearness of her light young body was like wings to him. “What a pity it’s getting dark — I believe I could climb to one of those ruby peaks!” he said, throwing his head back with a deep breath; and she instantly rejoined: “Let’s run back and get Bun’s lamp; then we could.”

Boyne laughed, and went on, in a voice of leisurely satisfaction: “Oh, Bun wouldn’t part with that lamp — not yet. Besides, we’re very well as we are; and there’ll be lots of other opportunities.”

“There will? Oh, Martin — they’re really going to let us stay?” Her strong young hands imprisoned him in a passionate grasp.

“Well, for a time. I made them see it was Terry’s best chance.”

“Of course it is! And, Martin — they’ll leave us all together? Chip and all?”

“Every man of you — for the summer, at any rate.” They had stopped in the fern-fringed path, and he stood above her, smiling down into her blissful incredulous eyes. “There’s one condition, though — ” Her gaze darkened, and he added: “You’re all to be accountable to me. I’ve promised your people to keep an eye on you.”

“You mean you’re going to stay here with us?” Her lips trembled with the tears she was struggling to keep back, and he thought to himself: “It’s too much for a child’s face to express — .” Aloud he said: “Let’s sit down and watch the sunset. This tree-trunk is a pretty good proscenium box.”

They sat down, and he set forth at length the history of his negotiations. Complicated as the narrative was, it was easier to relate to his present hearer than to Mrs. Sellars, not only because fewer elucidations were necessary, but because none of the details he gave shocked or astonished Judith. The tale he told evidently seemed to her a mere bald statement of a matter-of-course affair, and she was too much occupied with its practical results to give a thought to its remoter bearings. She listened attentively to Boyne’s report of the final agreement, and when he had ended, said only: “I suppose father’s made some arrangement about paying our bills?”

“Your father’s opened an account for me: Miss Scope and I are to be your ministers of finance.”

She received this in silence; for the first time since his return he felt that the news he brought was still overshadowed for her. At last she asked: “Was father awfully angry . . . you know . . . about that money?”

The question roused Boyne with a start. He perceived that in his struggle to adjust conflicting interests he too had lost sight of the moral issue. And how confess to Judith that, as for her father, he had hardly been aware of it? He felt that it was a moment for prevarication. “Of course your father was angry — thoroughly angry — about the whole thing. Anybody would have been.”

She lowered her voice to insist: “But I mean about my taking his money?”

“Well, he’s forgiven you for that, at any rate.”

“Has he — really and truly?” Her voice lifted again joyfully. “Terry was sure he never would.”

Boyne turned about on her in surprise. “Terry — then you told him after all?”

She made a mute sign of assent. “I had to.”

“Well, I understand that.” He gave her hand a little squeeze. “I’m glad you did.”

“He was frightfully upset, you know. And furious with me. I was afraid I’d made him more ill. He wouldn’t believe me at first. He said if I had no more moral sense than that, the first thing I knew I’d land in prison.”

“Oh — .” Boyne could not restrain a faint laugh.

“That didn’t worry me very much, though,” Judith confessed in a more cheerful tone, “because I’ve seen a good deal more of life than Terry, and I’ve known other girls who’ve done what I did, and none of them ever went to prison.”

This did not seem as reassuring to Boyne as it did to the speaker; but the hour for severity was over, the words of rebuke died on his lips. At last he said: “The worst of it was hurting Terry, wasn’t it?” and she nodded: “Yes.”

For a while after that they sat without speaking, till she asked him if he thought the Wheaters had already started divorce proceedings. To this he could only answer that it looked so, but he still hoped they might calm down and think better of it. She received this with a gesture of incredulity, and merely remarked: “There might have been a chance if Syb Lullmer hadn’t been mixed up in it.”

“I do wish you wouldn’t call that woman by her Christian name,” Boyne interrupted.

Judith looked at him with a gentle wonder. “She wouldn’t mind. Everybody else does.” She clearly assumed that he was reproving her for failing in respect to Mrs. Lullmer.

“That’s not what I meant. But she’s such a beast.”

“Oh, well — .” Judith’s shrug implied that the epithet was too familiar to her to have kept more than a tinge of obloquy. “I rather hope she won’t marry father, though.”

“I hope to God she won’t. What I’m gambling on is that he and your mother will get so homesick for you children that they’ll patch things up on your account.”

Her smile kept its soft incredulity. “They don’t often, you know; parents don’t.”

“Well, anyhow, you’ve got a reprieve, and you must make the most of it.”

“I wish you’d say ‘we,’ not ‘you,’ Martin.”

“Why of course it’s ‘we,’ my dear — that is, as long as you all behave yourselves.”

They both laughed at this, and then fell silent, facing the sunset, and immersed, in their different ways, in the overwhelming glory of the spectacle. Judith, Boyne knew, did not feel sunsets as Rose Sellars did — they appealed to a different order of associations, and she would probably have been put to it to distinguish the quality of their splendour from that of fireworks at the Lido, or a brilliant finale at the Russian ballet. But something of the celestial radiance seemed to reach her, remote yet enfolding as a guardian wing. “It’s lovely here,” she breathed, her hand in Boyne’s.

He remembered, at a similar moment, Rose Sellars’s quoting:

All the peaks soar, but one the rest excels;
    Clouds overcome it;
No, yonder sparkle is the citadel’s
    Circling its summit —

and he murmured the words half aloud.

Judith’s pressure tightened ardently on his hand.

“Oh, Martin, how beautifully you do describe things! The words you find are not like anybody else’s. Terry says you ought to be a writer.”

“Well, in this case, unluckily, somebody found the words before me.”

“Oh — .” Her enthusiasm flagged. She hazarded: “Mrs. Sellars?”

He gave a little chuckle at her sharpness. “In a way, yes — but, as a matter of fact, Robert Browning got ahead of both of us.”

This seemed to give her a certain satisfaction. “Then she just cribbed it from him? Is he another friend of hers?”

“Yes; and will be of yours some day, I hope. He died long before you were born; but you’ll find some of the best of him in one of the books I brought to Terry.”

“Oh, he’s just an author, you mean,” she murmured, as if the state were a strictly posthumous one. Her attention always had a tendency to wander at the mention of books, and he thought she was probably a little vexed at having been betrayed into a conversational slip; but presently, with a return of her habitual buoyancy: “I’d rather hear you talk than anybody who’s dead,” she declared.

“All right; I’ll make it a rule to give you only my own vintage,” he agreed, gazing out past her into the light. They continued to sit there in silence, the sea of night creeping softly up to them, till at length they were caught in its chill touch. Boyne got reluctantly to his feet. “Come along, child. Time to go down,” he said.

“Oh, not down yet — up, up, up!” She caught his arm again, pulling him with all her young strength along the pine-scented steep to where the mystery of the forest drew down to meet them. “I want to climb and climb — don’t you? I want to stay up all night, as if we were coming home at sunrise from a ball. It’s like a great ball~room over there, isn’t it,” she cried, pointing to the west, “with the lights pouring out of a million windows?”

Boyne laughed, and suffered himself to be led onward. The air on that height was as fresh as youth, and all about them were the secret scents that dew and twilight waken into life. He knew that he and Judith ought to be turning homeward; but, even if she had released his captive arm, it was growing too dark to consult his watch. Besides, the wandering man in him, the man used to mountains, to long lonely tramps, to the hush and mystery of nights in the open, felt himself in the toils of the old magic. It was no longer Judith drawing him on, but the night itself beckoning him to fresh heights. The child at his side had travelled with him into the beauty as far as she could go, and now he needed nothing from her but the warmth of her nearness. His highest moments had always been solitary. . .

She seemed to guess that there was nothing else to say, and they continued to mount the hill in silence. As they rose the air turned colder, the fires faded, and above them arched a steel-blue heaven starred with ruddy points which grew keen and white as darkness deepened. It was not till they passed out of the fringes of the forest to an open crag above the valley, and saw the village lights sprinkling the black fields far below, that Boyne unwillingly woke to the sense of time and place.

“Oh, by Jove — you must come!” he exclaimed, swinging round to guide his companion down the ledge.

She made no answer, but turned and followed him along the descending path. He could feel that she was too tired and peaceful for reluctance. She moved beside him like a sleepy child bringing back an apronful of flowers from a happy holiday; and the fact of having reassured her so quickly awed Boyne a little, as if he had meddled with destiny. But it was pleasant, for once, to play the god, and he let himself drift away into visions of a vague millennium where all the grown people knew what they wanted, and if ever it happened that they didn’t, the children had the casting vote.

By the time they reached the pension, and Judith had loosed her hold of Boyne’s arm, he was afraid to look at his watch, but pushed her through the gate with a quick goodnight — and then, a moment later, called to her in an imperious whisper. “Judith!” She hurried back to the summons.

“Did you really think I hadn’t brought you any present?”

She gave an excited little laugh. “N— no; I really thought perhaps you had; only — ”

“Only what?”

“I thought you’d forgotten some one else’s, and had imagined I shouldn’t much mind your taking mine, because I’m so much older than the others. . .”

“Well, of course I should have imagined that; but here it is.”

He pulled out the parcel he had inadvertently produced in Mrs. Sellars’s sitting-room, and Judith caught it to her with a gasp of pleasure.

“Oh, Martin — ”

“There; own up that you’d have been fearfully sold if I’d forgotten you.”

She answered solemnly: “If you’d forgotten me I should have died of it.”

“Well — run off with you; we’re hours late,” he admonished her.

“Mayn’t I look at it before you go?”

“You baby, how could you see in the dark? Besides, I tell you there’s no time.”

“Not even time to kiss you for it, Martin?”

“No,” he cried, slamming the gate shut, and starting up the hill toward his hotel at a run.

When they started on their walk nothing had been farther from Boyne’s mind than this disposal of the crystal pendant, though it was for Judith that the trinket had been chosen. Since Mrs. Sellars, owing to his blunder, had seen and coveted it, he felt a certain awkwardness about letting it appear on Judith’s neck, and decided that his little friend must again be left out in the general distribution of presents. But during their walk in the mountain dusk, while she hung on his arm, pressed close by the intruding fir-branches, he needed more and more to think of her as a child, and, thinking thus, to treat her as one. He knew how the child in her must have ached at being left out when he unpacked his gifts; and when the time came to say goodnight it was irresistible to heal that ache. There was no way of doing it but to take the pendant from his pocket — the pendant which he had meant for her, and which it had taken so long to unearth at the Venetian antiquary’s that there was no time for much thought of Mrs. Sellars’s — the pendant which was Judith’s by right because, like her, it was odd and exquisite and unaccountable.

“If only she doesn’t parade it up at the châlet!” the coward in him thought, as he climbed the hill. But all the while he knew it was exactly what she would do.

“Oh, well, damn — after all, I chose it for her,” he grumbled, as if that justified them both.

In the châlet sitting-room Mrs. Sellars, in her cool evening dress, looked up from the table at which she sat, not writing a letter but reading one. She laid it down thoughtfully as he entered.

“I’m afraid it’s awfully late — I hadn’t time to go to the hotel and brush up; you don’t mind?” he said, blinking a little in the lamplight, and passing his hand through his rumpled hair. As he bent to kiss her his glance fell on the admonishing needles of the little travelling clock at her elbow. “You don’t mean to say it’s after nine?”

“What does it matter? As a matter of fact, it’s after half-past. I was only afraid something had gone wrong about the children.”

He tossed his hat down with a laugh. “Bless you, no! Everything’s as right as right. But I had to get the Lido out of my lungs; and a long tramp was the only way.”

Her smile told him how much she loved him for hating the Lido. “And what do you think my news is? You know I said I had something to tell you. Mr. Dobree is coming here to see me — he arrives next week.” She announced the fact as if it were not only important, but even exciting.

“Oh, damn Mr. Dobree!” Boyne rejoined with a careless benevolence. The door had opened on the candlelight of their little dinner~table, on its sparkle of white wine and smell of wild strawberries and village bread. “Well, this is good enough for me,” Boyne said, as he dropped into the seat opposite Mrs. Sellars with a sense of proprietorship which made Mr. Dobree’s movements seem wholly negligible.

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