The Children, by Edith Wharton


The next day there occurred, with a fatal punctuality, exactly what Boyne had foreseen. Mrs. Sellars had invited Judith, Terry and Blanca to lunch; and when they appeared Mrs. Sellars’s eye instantly lit on the crystal pendant, Judith’s on the sapphire ring. The mutual reconnaissance was swift and silent as the crossing of search-lights in a night sky. Judith said nothing; but Blanca, as Mrs. Sellars bent to kiss her, raised her hostess’s hand with an admiring exclamation. “A new ring! What a beauty! I never saw you wear it before.”

Mrs. Sellars smiled, and tapped Blanca’s cheek with her free hand. “What sharp eyes! But everybody seems to have had a present from Venice — so why shouldn’t I?”

Blanca returned the smile, lifting her own wrist to display a hoop of pink crystal. “Isn’t mine sweet? Nobody finds presents like Martin.”

“So I thought when he showed me Judith’s last night.”

Mrs. Sellars turned to the older girl, but not to kiss her. She reserved her endearments for the younger children, and merely laid a friendly touch on Judith’s shoulder. “Such a wonder, that pendant — I never saw one like it. Decidedly, not Venetian; seventeenth century Spanish, perhaps? It’s a puzzle. You’re lucky, my dear, to have a connoisseur to choose your presents.”

That was all — and then a jolly lunch, simple, easy, full of chaff and laughter, Mrs. Sellars, always a perfect hostess, was at her best with Terry and Blanca. The boy touched and interested her, the little girl (Boyne divined) subtly flattered her by a wide-eyed but tactful admiration. Boyne wondered if Mrs. Sellars had noticed how Blanca’s clear gray eyes darkened with envy at the praise of the crystal pendant. What a fool he had been not to give the crystal to Blanca, and the tuppenny bracelet to Judith, who would have liked it best because it came from him! Decidedly, he was doomed to blunder in his dealings with women, even when they were no more than little girls. Meanwhile Terry was telling Mrs. Sellars about the books Boyne had brought him, and how he and Judith had already hunted down Boyne’s quotation from “The Grammarian’s Funeral” — “You know, that splendid one he told Judith yesterday, about ‘all the peaks soar’; she came home last night saying it over and over for fear she’d forget it, and woke me up to hunt for it before she went to bed.”

“It was so splendid, hearing it up there on the mountain, in the dark, with the stars coming out,” Judith glowed, taking up the tale, while Blanca ingenuously added: “It was so late when Judy got home that we were all asleep, and Scopy had to go down and let her in. Did you see Scopy in her crimping-pins, Martin; or had you gone when she opened the door?”

“Yes — the coming of twilight up on the heights is something to remember,” Mrs. Sellars intervened, letting her eyes rest attentively on Boyne’s before she turned them again to Terry. “But there are better things than that in Browning, you know. Bring me your book to-morrow, and I’ll show you. . .”

It all went off perfectly — and Boyne, when he started the children homeward after lunch, was wondering whether tact were as soothing as a summer breeze, or as terrible as an army with banners.

He was to drop the young Wheaters at their pension, and afterward meet Mrs. Sellars at the post-office for a climb in the direction of Misurina. At the corner of the highroad descending to Cortina he signalled the hotel omnibus, packed in the twins, and walked on with Judith. At the moment he would rather have escaped from the whole party; but Judith had declared her intention of walking, and he could not do otherwise than go with her. They waited under the trees for the omnibus to sweep on with its load of dust and passengers, and almost at once Judith said: “I suppose you’re engaged to Mrs. Sellars, aren’t you, Martin?”

The suddenness of the question struck him like a blow, and he realised for the first time that he had never spoken to Rose Sellars about making their engagement known. He had never even asked her if she had broken the news to her formidable aunt, or to the galaxy of minor relatives with whom she maintained her incessant exchange of letters. Her insistence that their marriage should be put off for nearly half a year seemed to make the whole question too remote for immediate decisions. “I suppose I ought to have asked her if she wanted it announced,” he thought, reflecting remorsefully that his long exile had made him too careless of the social observances. He turned an irritated eye on Judith. “What in the world put such an idea into your head?”

“Why, your bringing her a ring from Venice, and her putting it on the finger where engagement rings are worn,” Judith replied with a smiling promptness.

“Oh, that’s the finger, is it?” Boyne said, temporising; and then, with an abrupt clutch at simplification: “Yes; I am engaged to Mrs. Sellars. But I don’t think she wants it spoken of at present.”

He turned his gaze away to the long white road glinting through the trees under which he and Judith were withdrawn. Things happened so suddenly and overwhelmingly in Judith’s face that he did not feel equal to what might be going on there till he had steadied his gaze by a protracted study of the landscape. When he looked at her again he received the shock of smiling lips and eyes, and two arms thrown filially about him.

“You darling old Martin, I’m so glad! At least I am if you are — really and truly?”

Her hug was almost as suffocating as Zinnie’s, and given — he divined it instantly — with the same wholehearted candour. “So Blanca was right after all! How lovely it must be to be in love! For I suppose that’s the reason why you’re marrying? I know you’re awfully romantic, though you sometimes put on such a gruff manner; I’m sure you wouldn’t marry just for position, or for money, or to regularise an old liaison; would you?”

“An old liaison?” Boyne laughed, but with a touch of vexation. “The ideas you’ve picked up — and the lingo! You absurd child — why, ‘regularise’ isn’t even English . . . And can’t you see, can’t you imagine, that a man’s first need is to — to respect the woman he hopes to marry?”

Judith received this with a puzzled frown. “Oh, I can SEE it; I have, often — in books, and at the movies. But I can’t imagine it, exactly. I should have thought wanting to give her a good hug came before anything.”

Boyne shrugged impatiently. Things that seemed funny, and utterly guileless, when she said them to others, shocked him when she commented on his private concerns in the vocabulary of her tribe. “What’s the use? You’re only a baby, and you repeat things like a parrot, as all children do. Mrs. Sellars is the most perfect, the most exquisite. . .” He broke off, feeling that such asseverations led nowhere in particular, and continued at a tangent: “I can tell you one thing — I should never have dared to take on the job of looking after you children if she hadn’t been here — ”

Judith’s face fell. “Oh, is she going to stay all summer, then?”

“I devoutly hope so! Being with somebody like her is so exactly what. . .” This, again, seemed to land him in a sort of rhetorical blind alley, and he stepped down from it into the dust of the highroad. “Come along; we mustn’t dawdle. I’m due at the post~office.” He was aware that a settled anger was possessing him, he hardly knew why. Hardly — yet just under the surface of his mind there stirred the uneasy sense that he was perhaps disappointed by Judith’s prompt congratulations. Half an hour earlier, he would have said that her approval would add the final touch to his happiness; that there was nothing he wanted more than to have her show herself in fact the child he was perpetually calling her. “The youngest of them all” — that was how he had described her to Mrs. Sellars. Was it possible he had not meant what he said?

He was roused by Judith’s squeeze on his arm. “I don’t know why you’re so cross with me, old Martin. I do really want anything you want. . .”

“That’s a good Judy . . . and what rot, dear, thinking I’m cross. Only, remember, it’s your secret and mine, and not another soul’s.” After all, he tried to tell himself, Judith’s knowing of his engagement was already a relief. It would do away with no end of hedging and prevaricating. And he was sure he could trust to Judith’s discretion; sure of it without her added pressure on his arm, and the solemn: “On Scopy’s book!” which had become the tribal oath of the little Wheaters. Boyne had sometimes winced at Judith’s precocious discretion, as another proof of what she had been exposed to; now he hailed in it a guaranty of peace. “Perhaps there’s something to be said for not keeping children in cotton wool — for she IS only a child!” he repeated to himself, insistently.

That very evening, while he and Mrs. Sellars were talking over the likelihood of picking up some kind of a tutor for Terry, she asked irrelevantly: “By the way, do the children know of our engagement?”

Contradictory answers rose to Boyne’s lips, and he gulped them down to mumble: “I didn’t suppose I was authorized to tell anybody.”

“But hasn’t anybody guessed?”

“Well — as a matter of fact, Judith has. Today. I can’t imagine — ”

Mrs. Sellars smiled. “My ring, of course. Trust Blanca, too! It was stupid of me not to think of it. But perhaps it’s better — ”

“Much better.”

She pondered. “Only I’d rather no one else knew — at least for the present. Out of regard for Aunt Julia — till I’ve heard from her.” Boyne, relieved, expressed his complete agreement. “Besides,” she continued, “I like it’s being our secret, don’t you? We won’t even tell Mr. Dobree.”

“Oh, particularly not Mr. Dobree,” Boyne replied emphatically.

Two days later Mr. Dobree arrived; and Boyne learned that an event which seems negligible before it happens may fill the picture when it becomes a fact. The prospect of Mr. Dobree’s arrival had now become the fact of Mr. Dobree’s presence; and Mr. Dobree, though still spare and nimble for a man approaching sixty (he was ready, and glad, to tell you to what exercises he owed it), took up a surprising amount of room. He was like somebody who travels with a lot of unwieldy luggage — his luggage being, as it were, the very absence of it, being his tact, his self-effacingness, his general neatness and compactness. Wherever you turned, you were in the aura of Mr. Dobree’s retractility, his earnest and insistent dodging out of your way, which seemed to leave behind it a presence more oppressive than any mere physical bulk — so that a dull fat man rooted in your best armchair might have been less in the way than the slim and disappearing Mr. Dobree. Mr. Dobree’s tact seemed to Boyne like a parody of Mrs. Sellars’s; like one of those monstrous blooms into which hybridizers transform a delicate flower. It was a “show” tact, a huge, unique, disbudded tact grown under glass, and destined to be labelled, exhibited, given a prize and a name, and a page to itself in the florists’ catalogues. Such at least was Boyne’s distorted vision of the new guest at the châlet.

Mr. Dobree (as became a man with such impedimenta) was lodged, not at Boyne’s inn, but at the “Palace” where Boyne and Mrs. Sellars had once dined. From there a brisk five minutes carried him to the châlet; except when his urgent hospitality drew Mrs. Sellars and Boyne to the big hotel. The prompt returning of invitations was a fundamental part of Mr. Dobree’s code. He seemed to think that hospitality was something a gentleman might borrow, like money, but never, in any circumstances, receive as a gift; and this obliged Mrs. Sellars to accept his repeated invitations, before, in the battle of their tacts, hers came off victorious, and she made him see that it may be more blessed to receive than to be invited out. The sapphire had vanished from her finger before Mr. Dobree’s arrival; and this precaution, for which Boyne blessed her, made him, for Mr. Dobree, simply an old friend, a guest of the Sellars’s in New York days, whom one could be suitably pleased to meet again.

Boyne was less pleased to meet Mr. Dobree. His coming was natural enough; and so was Mrs. Sellars’s pleasure at seeing him, since he brought not only the latest news of Aunt Julia but papers which settled satisfactorily the matter of Mr. Sellars’s will. Boyne had resented what promised to be a tiresome interruption of pleasant habits; but before long he discovered that Mr. Dobree’s presence left him free to spend much more time with his young friends of the Pension Rosenglüh. This made him aware that during the last weeks he had forfeited a certain amount of his liberty, and he found himself perilously pleased to recover it. He assured Mrs. Sellars that it would look very odd to Mr. Dobree, who had come to discuss family matters with his client, if a third person were present at these discussions; and armed with this argument he proceeded to dispose of his time as he pleased.

His liberation gave a new savour to the hours spent with the little Wheaters; and as for Mr. Dobree (with whom the children had had only one brief and awe-inspiring encounter), he came in very handily as the theme of the games they were always calling on Boyne to invent. To ascertain Mr. Dobree’s Christian name (Boyne told them) had long been his secret ambition; but hitherto he had not even been able to learn its first letter. A chance glimpse of Mr. Dobree’s glossy suit-cases showed his initials to be A.D., and the letter A was one calculated, as Boyne said, to give them a good gallop. Indeed, he found the puzzle so absorbing that one day, when Judith remarked on his unusual absent-mindedness, he had to own that he had not been listening to what she said because all his faculties were still absorbed in the task of guessing Mr. Dobree’s Christian name.

“But Mrs. Sellars must know — why don’t you ask her?”

“Must know? Do you think so? I doubt it.”

“But she talks of him as an old friend — as old as you.”

“Even that doesn’t convince me. I doubt if anybody knows Mr. Dobree’s Christian name. How should they? Can you imagine anybody’s ever having called him by it, or dared to ask him what it was?”

“Well, you might ask her,” suggested Judith, from whose make-up a taste for abstract speculation was absent.

“Ask her? Not for the world! Suppose she did know? All our fun would be over.”

“Of course it would,” cried Terry, plunging into the sport. “If she knows, she mustn’t be asked till we’ve exhausted every other possibility; must she, Martin?”

“Certainly not. I see you grasp the rules of the game. And now let’s proceed by elimination. Abel — Abel’s the first name in A, isn’t it, Terry?”

“No! There’s a Prince Aage of Denmark, or something; I saw him in ‘The Tatler,’” exulted Terry.

“All right. Let’s begin with Aage. Do any of you SEE Mr. Dobree as Aage?” This was dismissed with a general shout of incredulity.

“Well, then: as Abel — Abel Dobree? Don’t be in a hurry: try to deal with this thing in a mood of deliberateness and impartiality.”

“No, no, no — not Abel!” the assistance chorused.

“Oh, I’m going to sleep,” Judith grumbled, stretching out at full length on the sunburnt grass-bank on which the party were encamped.

“Let her — for all the use she is!” Boyne jeered. “Now then — Adam?”

“Adam’s a Polish name, isn’t it? Who WAS Adam?” Judith opened her eyes to ask.

“A national hero, I think,” said Blanca, with a diligent frown.

Miss Scope, perched higher up the bank, cut through these conjectures with a groan. “Children — children! One would think I’d brought you up like savages. Adam — ”

“Oh, Scopy means the Adam in the Bible: but Mr. Dobree’s parents wouldn’t have called him after anybody as far away as that,” Blanca shrugged; while Zinnie interposed: “Who was already dead, and couldn’t have given him a lovely cup for his christening.” Beechy, her face wrinkling up in sympathy at such a privation, wailed out: “Oh, poor little Mr. Dobree — ”; and Boyne, recognizing the difficulty, pursued: “Aeneas, then; but he’s almost as far away as Adam, I’m afraid.”

This drew him into a discussion with Terry regarding the relative seniority of the Biblical and Virgilian heroes, in the intervals of which Miss Scope continued to demand despairingly: “But what in the world are you all arguing about, when we know that Adam was the First Man?”

Judith lifted her head again from its grassy pillow. With half~closed eyes she murmured to the sky: “I don’t believe Mr. Dobree would care a bit if his godfather was Adam or not. He could buy himself any christening cup he liked. I believe he’s a very rich man.”

“Oh, then, do you think he’ll give us all some lovely presents when he goes?” Zinnie promptly inferred.

“What makes you think he’ll ever go?” Judith retorted, closing her eyes.

“Annibal — Annibal! Annibal begins with an A! I know because he was a Prince, my ancestor,” shouted Bun, leaping back into the game.

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