The Children, by Edith Wharton


Mrs. Sellars’s social discipline was too perfect to permit her, even in emergencies, to neglect one obligation for another; and after Mr. Dobree had been for a week at Cortina she said one day to Boyne: “But I’ve seen nothing lately of the little Wheaters. What’s become of them?”

He assured her that they were all right, but had probably been too shy to present themselves at the châlet since Mr. Dobree’s arrival; to which Mrs. Sellars replied, with the faintest hint of tartness, that she had never had occasion to suspect the little Wheaters of being shy, and that, furthermore, Mr. Dobree did not happen to be staying at the châlet.

Boyne smiled. “No; but they know he’s with you a good deal, and he’s a more impressive figure than they’re used to.”

He saw that she scented irony in this, and was not wholly pleased with it. “I don’t know what you mean by impressive; I didn’t know anything in the world could impress the modern hotel child. But Mr. Dobree is very sorry for them, poor dears, and I’m sure it would interest him to see something of them. Why shouldn’t we take them all on a picnic to-morrow? I know Mr. Dobree would like to invite them.”

Boyne felt that, for all the parties concerned, the undertaking might prove formidable. He pointed out that, if Zinnie and the two Buondelmonte children were included in an all-day expedition, Miss Scope’s presence would be necessary, since otherwise all Judith’s energies would be absorbed in keeping the party in order; and Mrs. Sellars acquiesced: “Yes, the poor little things are dreadfully spoilt.”

Boyne was secretly beginning to be of the same mind; but Mrs. Sellars could no longer criticise his young friends without rousing his instinctive opposition. “They certainly haven’t had much opportunity to become little Lord Fauntleroys, if that’s what you mean,” he said impatiently; and his betrothed rejoined: “What I mean is that Mr. Dobree feels sorry for them because of the kind of opportunity they have had. You see, he was one of the lawyers in the Westway divorce.”

Boyne gave her a quick look, in which he was conscious that his resentment flamed. “I’m hanged if I see what there can be in Mr. Dobree’s mind to make him connect the Westway divorce with the Wheater children.”

“Why, simply his knowledge of Judith’s intimacy with that wretched drug-soaked Doll Westway, and his familiarity with the horrible details that led up to the girl’s suicide. She and Judith were together at Deauville the very summer that she killed herself. Both their mothers had gone off heaven knows where. Judith proclaims the fact to every one, as you know.”

Boyne had removed his eyes from Mrs. Sellars’s face, and was staring out at the familiar outline of the great crimson mountains beyond the balcony. A phrase of Stevenson’s about “the lovely and detested scene” (from “The Ebb-tide,” he thought?) strayed through his mind as he gazed. It was hateful to him to think that he might hereafter come to associate those archangelic summits with Mrs. Lullmer’s smooth impervious face, and Mr. Dobree’s knowledge of the inner history of the Westway divorce.

He turned back to Mrs. Sellars. “Aren’t you getting rather sick of this place?” he asked abruptly.

She gave back his irritated stare with one of genuine surprise. “Sick of what? You mean of Cortina?”

“Of the whole show.” His sweeping gesture gathered up in one contemptuous handful the vast panorama of mountain, vale and forest. “I always feel that when scenery gets mixed up with our personal bothers all the virtue goes out of it — as if our worries were so many locusts, eating everything bare.”

Mrs. Sellars was silent for a moment; then her hand fell on his. “I’ve always been afraid, dear, that this queer responsibility you’ve assumed was going to end by getting on your nerves — ”

Boyne jumped up, drawing abruptly away from her. “Responsibility? What responsibility?” He walked across the room, turned back, and awkwardly laid an answering caress on her hair. “Gammon! It’s Mr. Dobree who gets on my nerves — just a little.” (“Hypocrite!” he cursed himself inwardly.) “Fact is, I liked Cortina a damned sight better when you and I and the children had it all to ourselves.” He saw the light of reassurance in her averted cheek. “Just my beastly selfishness, I know — I needn’t tell you that men ARE beastly selfish, need I?” He laughed, and her faint laugh echoed his.

“Mr. Dobree is going soon, I believe,” she volunteered.

Boyne pulled himself together. “Well, that makes it a good deal easier to be unselfish while he’s here, and I take it upon myself to accept his picnic for to-morrow. I’ll drop down and announce it to the children.” He flattered himself that his simulation of buoyancy had produced the desired effect, and that his parting from Mrs. Sellars was unclouded. But half way down the hill he stood suddenly still in the path, and exclaimed aloud: “But after he’s gone; what then?”

The picnic was beautifully successful — one of those smooth creaseless well-oiled successes as to which one feels that at any moment it may slip from one’s hold and reveal the face of failure. A very Janus of a picnic, Boyne thought. . .

To the chief actors, however, it presented no such duality, but was the perfect image of what constitutes A Good Time For The Young People, when made out of the happy union of tact and money. To Mr. Dobree it was certainly that, and he was justified in feeling that if you order the two roomiest and most balloon-tired motors obtainable, and fill enough hampers with the most succulent delicacies of a “Palace” restaurant, and are actuated throughout by the kindliest desire to give pleasure, happiness will automatically follow.

As regards the younger members of the party, it undoubtedly did. Terry was strong enough to enjoy the long day on the heights without fear of Miss Scope’s thermometer; Blanca was impressed by the lavish fare which replaced their habitual bread and chocolate; and the small children were in the state of effervescence induced by freedom from lessons and the sense of being the central figures of the day.

And Judith —?

After lunch the younger members of the party trailed away with Miss Scope to hunt for wild strawberries while the others sat pillowed in moss beside a silver waterfall. Boyne, supine against his boulder, studied the scene and meditated from behind a screen of pipe smoke. Judith, a little way off, leaned luxuriously against her mossy cushion, her hat tossed aside, her head resting in the curve of an immature arm. Her profile looked small and clear against the auburn tremor of bracken turned inward by the rush of the water. A live rose burned in her cheeks, darkening her eyebrows and lashes, and putting a velvet shadow under her closed lids. She had fallen asleep, and sleep surrendered her unguarded to her watchers.

“She looks almost grown up — she looks kissable. Why should she, all of a sudden?” Boyne asked himself, suddenly disturbed, not by her increased prettiness (the measure of that varied from hour to hour) but by some new quality in it. He turned his eyes away, and they fell on Mr. Dobree, who sat facing him in the studied ABANDON of a picnicker unused to picnics. Mr. Dobree’s inexhaustible wardrobe had supplied him with just the slightly shabby homespun suit and slightly faded hat adapted to the occasion; and Boyne wondered whether it were this change of dress which made him also seem different. But no: the difference was deeper. Despite his country clothes, Mr. Dobree did not look easier or less urban; he merely looked more excited and off his guard. His clear cautious eyes had grown blurred and furtive; one could almost see a faint line stretching from them to the recumbent Judith. Along that line it was manifest that Mr. Dobree’s thoughts were racing; and Boyne knew they were the same thoughts as his own. The discovery shocked him indescribably. But he remembered that the levelling tendencies of modern life have levelled differences of age with the rest; and that Mr. Dobree was, to all intents and purposes, but little older than himself. Moreover, he was still brisk and muscular; his glance was habitually alert; in spite of his silver hair there seemed no reason why he should not share with Boyne the contemplation of Judith’s defenceless beauty.

But if this was Boyne’s conclusion it was apparently not Mr. Dobree’s. As Boyne continued to observe him, Mr. Dobree’s habitual pinkness turned to a red which suffused even his temples and eyelids, so that his carefully brushed white hair looked like a sunlit cloud against an angry sky. But with whom was Mr. Dobree angry? Why, with himself, manifestly. His eyes still rested on the dreaming Judith; but the rest of his face looked as if every muscle were tightened in the effort to pull the eyes away. “He’s frightened — he’s frightened at himself,” Boyne thought, calling to mind — with a faint recoil from the reminder — that he also, once or twice, had been vaguely afraid of himself when he had looked too long at Judith. Had his eyes been like that, he wondered? And the muscles of his face been stretched in the effort to detach the eyes? The thing was not pleasant to visualise; and he disliked Mr. Dobree the more for serving as his mirror. . .

But suddenly Mr. Dobree was on his feet, his whole attention given to Mrs. Sellars. Again Boyne followed his change of direction with a start. Mrs. Sellars — but then she had been there all the time! Shadowed by her spreading hat, her light body bedded in the turf, she looked almost as young and sylvan as Judith. But somehow she had been merged in the landscape, all broken up into a dapple of sun and shade, of murmurs and soughings: her way of fitting into things sometimes had this effect of effacing her. She lifted her head, and in the shade of the hat-brim Boyne caught a delicate watchfulness of brows and lips, as of tiny live things under a protecting leaf.

Mr. Dobree was challenging her jauntily. “Do you see why those young cannibals should monopolise all the wild strawberries? Suppose we leave Mr. Boyne to mount guard over the sleeping beauty, and try to bag our share before it’s too late?”

The words said clearly enough: “Take me away — it’s high time,” and Mrs. Sellars’s gay little answer: “Come on — I’ll show you a patch they’ll never find,” seemed to declare as clearly: “I know; but I’ll see that you don’t come to any mischief.”

She was on her feet before his hands could help her up; something light and bounding in her seemed to spring to his call. “This way, this way,” she cried, starting ahead of him up the boulder-strewn way. Boyne heard their voices mounting the streamside, mingling with the noise of the water, fading and flashing out again like the glimpses of her dress through the beech-leaves. He lay without moving, watching the smoke of his pipe rise in wavering spirals, twisted out of shape by puffs of air from the waterfall. With Mr. Dobree’s withdrawal the ideas suggested by his presence had gone too; Judith Wheater seemed once more a little girl. Though perplexities and uncertainties still lingered on the verge of Boyne’s mind his central self was anchored in a deep circle of peace. Every fibre of him was alive to the exquisite moment; but he had no need to fly from it, no fear of its flying from him. Judith’s sleep was a calm pool in which he rested.

He fancied he must have been watching her for a long time, his thoughts enclosing her in a sort of calm fraternal vigilance, when she opened her eyes and turned them on him, still dewy with sleep.

“Martin!” she hailed him drowsily; then, fully awake, she sat up and exclaimed: “Darling, when are you going to be married? I’ve positively got to know at once.”

She was always startling Boyne, but she had perhaps never startled him more than by this question; for even as she spoke he had been half unconsciously putting it to himself. He remembered, as something already far off, picturesque and unreal as a youthful folly, his resentment of Mrs. Sellars’s delay in fixing a date for their marriage. Was it only two or three weeks ago that he had sent her, with a basket of gentians picked on a lofty upland, a quotation from Marvell’s “Coy Mistress”? Now all that seemed an undergraduate’s impatience. She had taught him that they were very well as they were, and if he still asked himself when they were to be married, the question had imperceptibly taken another form. “What in God’s name will become of the children after we’re married?” was the way he now instinctively put it.

He too sat up, and gazed into Judith’s sleepy eyes. As he did so he was aware that an uncomfortable redness (which did not, he hoped, resemble Mr. Dobree’s) was creeping up to his temples.

“When I’m going to be married? Why? What’s the odds? I don’t know that it’s anybody’s business, anyhow,” he grumbled in an ill~assured voice.

Judith brushed the rebuff aside. “Oh, but it is — it’s mine. For a very particular reason,” she continued, as if affectionately resolved to break down the barrier of his reserve.

“A reason? Nonsense! What has a chit like you got to do with reasons?”

“You mean I’m so unreasonable?” A quick shadow crossed her face. “You didn’t really mean that?”

“I didn’t mean anything at all — any more than you do. I only meant: why aren’t we very well as we are?”

Her eyes grew wide at this, and continued to fix him with a half mocking gravity, while her lips rounded into a smile. “Oh, but, Martin dear, it’s Mrs. Sellars who ought to say that — not you!”

Boyne burst out laughing. How could one ever keep serious for two minutes with any of these preposterous children? And once more he told himself that Judith was as preposterous, and as much of a child, as the youngest of them.

“You know, darling, you ought to be empressé, impatient, passionate,” she adjured him, as if his very life depended on his following her advice.

He leaned on his elbow and examined her with deliberation. “Well, of all the cheek —!”

She shook her head, still smiling. “I’m not cheeky; I’m really not, Martin. But sometimes you strike me as having so little experience — ”

(“Thank you,” Boyne interjected.)

“Oh, I mean in those sorts of ways. As if you’d lived all your life so far away from the world.”

“From your world? So I have, thank heaven.” After a moment he added with severity: “So has Mrs. Sellars — thank heaven too.”

The girl stood up, and crossing the mossy space between them, dropped down beside him and laid her hand on his arm. “Now I’ve offended you. Doll Westway always said I had no tact. And all I wanted was to explain why I have to know as soon as possible when you’re to be married.”

“Well, you certainly haven’t explained that,” Boyne answered, turning away from her to relight his pipe.

“No; but I’m going to. And you’ll be pleased. It’s because we’ve all clubbed together — even the steps and Scopy have — to give you a really jolly wedding present; and I think you’ll like what we’ve found. We unearthed it the other day at Toblach, at the antiquaire’s. And we want to know exactly the right moment to give it to you. You do love presents, don’t you, Martin?” she urged, as if straining her utmost to reach some human chord in him. He met the question with another laugh.

“Love presents? I should think I did! Almost as much as you do.” She coloured a little at the insinuation; and perceiving this, he hastened on: “It’s awfully dear of you all, and I’m ever so grateful. But there was no need to be in such a devil of a hurry.”

Her face became all sympathy and interrogation. “Oh, Martin, you don’t mean — things haven’t gone wrong, have they?” Her look and intonation showed that she would have been genuinely distressed if they had. A pang like neuralgia shot through Boyne — yet a pang that was not all bitter. He took her hand, and laid what she had once called a “grown up kiss” on it. “Of course not, dear. And thank you — thank you for everything . . . Whatever you’ve all chosen for me, I shall love . . . Only, you know, there’s really no sort of hurry.”

She met this in silence, as something manifestly final. Folding her arms behind her, she let her head droop back on them, and her gaze wandered lazily skyward through the flicker of boughs.

Boyne had got his pipe going again. Gradually the tumult in his mind subsided. He sank back lazily at her side, tilting his hat over his brows, and saying to himself: “What on earth’s the use of thinking ahead, anyhow?”

Directly in the line of his vision, Judith’s sandalled feet lay in a bed of bracken, crossed like a resting Mercury’s. He could almost see the little tufted wings at the heels. For the moment his imagination was imprisoned in a circle close about them.

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