The Children, by Edith Wharton


All the next day the rain continued. It was one of those steady business-like rains which seem, in mountain places, not so much a caprice of the weather as the drop-curtain punctually let down by Nature between one season and the next. Behind its closely woven screen one had the sense of some tremendous annual scene-shifting, the upheaval and overturning of everything in sight, from the clouds bursting in snow on the cliff-tops to the mattresses and blankets being beaten and aired in the hotel windows.

These images were doubtless born of Boyne’s own mood. When he opened his shutters on the morning after the Princess Buondelmonte’s apparition it seemed to him as if she herself had hung that cold gray mist before the window. He was afraid of everything now — of what the post might bring, of what his own common-sense might dictate to him, above all, of seeing Judith again, and having his apprehensions doubled by hers.

The worst of it was that, even should all their tormentors agree to leave them in peace, they could not — more particularly on Terry’s account — delay on that height through the coming weeks of storm and rain. Moreover, all the hotels and pensions, which would reopen later for the season of winter sports, were preparing to close for their yearly cleaning and renovating. After the middle of October there would be no demand for accommodation till the arrival of the Christmas lugers and ski-ers. If it proved possible to keep the little Wheaters together any longer the best plan would probably be to transport them to Riva or Meran till winter and fine weather were established together in the mountains.

Boyne turned over these things with the nervous minuteness with which one makes plans for some one who is dying, and will never survive to see them carried out. It seemed to give him faith in the future, a sense of factitious security, as it sometimes does, beside a deathbed, to think: “To-morrow I’ll see what the doctor says about a warmer climate.”

Judith and Miss Scope shared his idea about Meran or Riva, and for some time had been talking vaguely of going down to look for rooms. But the ever-recurring difficulty of persuading a boarding-house keeper to lodge seven children made them decide that it would be best to try to hire an inexpensive villa. The episode of the goldfish and the rabbit had not endeared them to their present landlady, and they felt the hopelessness of trying to ingratiate themselves with another, in a place where they were unknown, and where the autumn season would be at its height. It had therefore been decided that Judith, Miss Scope and Boyne should motor to Meran that very week to look over the ground. But on reflection Boyne hesitated to leave the children alone with their nurses, even for so short an absence. With Joyce in Paris, once more reorganising her life, and the Princess Buondelmonte returning to Rome unsatisfied, danger threatened on all sides. Any one of these cross-blasts might dash to earth the frail nest which had resisted the summer’s breezes; and Boyne, heavy-hearted, set out to call another council at the Pension Rosenglüh.

As he left the hotel a telegram was handed to him. He glanced first at the signature — Sarah Mervin — then read what went before. “I will gladly receive own dear grandchildren subject to parents’ final settlement of affairs fear cannot assume responsibility step~children letter follows” . . . “A lawyer’s cable,” Boyne growled as he pocketed it. “That’s the reason it’s taken so long to compose.”

Fresh bitterness filled him as he saw one more prop withdrawn from under the crazy structure of his hopes. “These people,” he reflected, “all act on impulse where their own wants are concerned, and call in a lawyer when it’s a question of anybody else’s.” But in his heart he was not much surprised. Mrs. Mervin was no longer young, and it is natural for ageing people to shrink from responsibilities. Besides, she might well plead that it was no business of hers to take in children she had never seen, and whose parents were eager, and financially able, to care for them. On second thoughts, it really did not need Judith’s bald hint as to the allowance her grandmother received from Cliffe Wheater to account for the poor lady’s attitude. “I don’t see what else she could have done,” the impartial Boyne was obliged to admit in the course of his interminable argument with the other, the passionate and unreasonable one.

What a Utopia he and Judith had been dreaming! He wondered now how he could have lent himself to such pure folly . . . Well, the dream was over, and his was the grim business of making her see it . . . Heavily he went down the hill through the rain.

At the pension Judith was watching for him from the window. She opened the door and led him into the sitting-room, where a sulky fire smouldered, puffing out acrid smoke. The landlady said it was always like that — the stove always smoked on the first day of the autumn rains, unless there was a little wind to make a draught. And there was not a breath today; the only way was to leave a window open, Judith explained as she turned to Boyne. Her face was colourless and anxious; he could see that she had been treading the wheel of the same problems as himself. The sight made him resolve to try and hide his own apprehensions a little longer.

“Well, old Judy — here we are, after all; and not a breach in the walls yet!”

“You mean she’s gone — the Princess?”

He nodded. “I saw her off to Rome an hour ago.” Her eyes brightened, as they always did at his challenge; but it was only a passing animation. “And you haven’t had any telegram?” she questioned.

The question took him unprepared. “I— why, have you?”

“Yes. From mother. Here.” She produced the paper and thrust it feverishly into his hand. Boyne’s anger rose — evidently, he thought, old Mrs. Mervin had waited to communicate with her daughter before answering him. What cowardice, what treachery! He pictured all these grown up powers and principalities leagued together against the handful of babes he commanded, and the bitterness of surrender entered into him. It was not that any of these parents really wanted their children. If they had, the break~up of Judith’s dream, though tragic, would have been too natural to struggle against. But it was simply that the poor little things had become a bone of contention, that the taking or keeping possession of them was a matter of pride or of expediency, like fighting for a goal in some exciting game, or clinging to all one’s points in an acrimoniously-disputed law-suit. Boyne unfolded Mrs. Wheater’s telegram, and read: “You must come to Paris immediately bringing Chip I must see you at once do not disobey me stop telegraph Hotel Nouveau Luxe Mother.”

The vague phrasing made it impossible to guess whether the message were the result of a cable from Mrs. Mervin, or simply embodied a new whim of Joyce’s. Boyne, on the whole, inclined to the latter view, and felt half ready to exonerate Mrs. Mervin. After all, perhaps she had kept faith with him, and her message was only the result of her own scruples.

He tossed the telegram onto the table with a shrug. “Is that all? You’ve heard nothing else?”

Yes; it appeared she had. Nanny, the day before, had received a letter from Mrs. Wheater’s maid Marguerite, an experienced person who wielded a facile but rambling pen. This letter Judith had coaxed from Nanny, unknown to Miss Scope; for Miss Scope, even in the extremest emergencies, would not admit the possibility of her charges using, as a means of information, what the Princess would have called “salaried assistants.”

Marguerite’s news, if vague, was ample. It appeared that Mrs. Wheater had met in Venice a gentleman a good deal older than herself, whose name the maid could not even approximately spell, but who was quite different from any of the other gentlemen in her mistress’s circle. “Different — different how?”

“She says he’s made a different woman of mother,” Judith explained. “He’s made her chuck Gerald, to begin with.”

“But, for God’s sake, why? I thought she was chucking your father on account of Gerald.”

Judith went into this with the lucid impartiality she always applied to the analysis of her parents’ foibles. She reminded Boyne that Joyce never stuck long to one thing, and that she had decided to marry Gerald chiefly in order to annoy her husband, and to have an excuse for detaining the young tutor at the Lido when the children left. “He’s rather a Lido man, Gerald is,” Judith commented, “and it made all the other women so furious. That’s always rather fun, you know.”

But, after all, she pursued, her mother had much more sense than her poor father, who was always the prey of women like Zinnia Lacrosse or Sybil Lullmer. “She does pull herself together sometimes — especially since that awful time with Buondelmonte. And so, when she met this other gentleman, who is so much older, and very religious, and enormously rich, and who only wants to influence her for good, Marguerite says it made her feel how dreadfully she’d wasted her life, and what a different woman she might have been if she’d known him years before. You see, he doesn’t want to marry her, but only to be her friend and adviser. He thinks she’s been married often enough. And so, in order not to leave Gerald at a loose end, she’s kept him on as secretary till he can get another job, and she and Gerald and the other gentleman have gone to Paris together to see what had better be done. And the gentleman says she ought to have us all with her; and he feels awfully fond of us already, and knows mother will be ever so much happier if we’re with her. . .”

“Oh, my God — then it’s all up with us,” Boyne groaned.

Judith made no answer, and he went on: “It only remains now to hear from Lady Wrench and the Princess!”

“Or Grandma Mervin — there’s still grandma,” Judith rejoined, half hopefully.

Boyne hesitated a moment; then he said to himself that there was no use in any farther postponement. “No; I’ve heard from her,” he said.

Judith’s eyes were again illuminated. “You have? Oh, Martin! If she’d only take us all, perhaps it would satisfy mother and the new gentleman. Oh, Martin, she doesn’t say no?”

Silently — for no words came to him — he gave her the cable, and walked away to the window to be out of sight of her face. For a while he stood watching the gray curtain of failure that hung there between him and his golden weeks; then he pulled himself together and turned back.”

“Judy — ”

She handed him the cable.

“After all, you expected it, didn’t you?” he said.

She nodded. “It doesn’t make so much difference, anyhow,” he continued, in an unconvinced voice, “if Bun and Beechy have to go. . .”

She pondered on this for a few moments without answering. Then, with one of her sudden changes of tone: “Martin,” she broke out impetuously, “do you suppose she was right, after all — I mean the Princess — about our being so dreadfully behind the times? Do you suppose, if we did all the things she suggested: if we got new teachers and new books, and somebody for Bun’s gymnastics, it would make any difference — do you think it would?” Every line of her face, from lifted eyebrows to parted lips, was a passionate demand for his assent. “After all, you know — perhaps she was right about some things: that stupid old book of Scopy’s, for instance. Of course we all know poor darling Scopy’s a back number. And about Bun’s gymnastics too. Do you suppose if we took a villa at Meran we could afford to fit up a room like the one she described, and get an instructor — didn’t she call him an instructor? And then there’s fencing and riding — I dare say she was right about that too! But after all — ” she paused, and her eyes looked as the rain did when the sun was trying to break through it. “After all, Martin,” she began again, “the main thing is that the children are so well, isn’t it? Look at our record — see what the summer has done! You wouldn’t know Terry, would you, if you were to see him now for the first time after meeting us on the boat at Algiers? And Chip — isn’t Chip a miracle? Every one stops Nanny in the street to admire him, and they always think he must be three years old. He was just beginning to walk alone when he came here — now he runs like a hare! Nanny gets worn out chasing him. And the tricks he’s learnt to do! He can imitate everybody; I believe he’s going to be a movie star. Have you seen him do the lion, with Bun as lion-tamer? Or the old man at the market, all doubled up with sciatica, who leans on a stick, and holds one hand behind his back? But it’s a wonder! Oh, Martin, wait, and I’ll fetch him down now to do the old man for you — shall I?”

Once again her grown up cares had vanished in the childish pride of recounting Chip’s achievements. Would it always be like this, Boyne wondered, or would life gradually close the gates of the fairyland which was still so close to her? He would have given most of his chances of happiness to help her keep open that communication with her childhood. And what if he were the one being who could do it? The question wound itself through his thoughts like a persuasive hand insinuating itself into his. This heart-break of separation that was upon her — what if he alone had the power to ease it? He stood looking down at her perplexedly.

“Judy — Chip’s a great man, and I’d love to see him do the old gentleman with the sciatica. But first. . .”

“Yes — first?” she palpitated. But under his gaze her radiance gradually faded, and her lips began to tremble a little. “Ah, then you don’t think . . . there’s any hope for us?”

“I think you’ve got to go to Paris and see your mother.”

“And take Chip? I’ll never take Chip! I won’t!”

“But listen, dear — .” He sat down, and drew her to the sofa beside him, speaking as he might have to a child on a holiday who was fighting the summons back to school.

“Listen, Judy. We’ve done our best; we all have. But the children are not yours or mine. They belong to their parents, after all.” How dry and flat his phrases sounded, compared with the words he longed to say to her!

She drew back into the corner of the sofa. “That Buondelmonte woman’s got at you — she’s talked you over! I knew she would.” She was grown up again now, measuring him with angry suspicious eyes, and flinging out her accusations in her mother’s shrillest voice.

“Why, child, what nonsense! You said just now that perhaps the Princess was right. . .”

“I never did! I said, perhaps we ought to get a new Cyclopædia for Scopy, and have Bun taught scientific gymnastics; and now you say . . .”

“I say that fate’s too much for us. It didn’t need the Princess Buondelmonte to teach me that.”

She made no answer, and they sat in silence in their respective corners of the sofa, each gazing desperately into a future of which nothing could be divined except that it was the end of their hopes. Suddenly Judith flung herself face down against the knobby cushions and broke into weeping. Boyne, for a few minutes, remained numb and helpless; then he moved closer, and bending over drew her into his arms. She seemed hardly aware of his nearness; she simply went on crying, with hard uneven sobs, pressing her face against his shoulder as if it were the sofa-cushion. He held her in silence, not venturing to speak, or even to brush back her tumbled hair, while he pictured, with the acuity of his older and less articulate grief, what must be passing before her as the fibres of her heart were torn away. “It’s too cruel — it’s too beastly cruel,” he thought, wincing at the ugly details which must enter into her vision of the future, details he could only guess at, while she saw them with all the precision of experience. Yes, it was too cruel; but what could he or she do? He continued to hold her in silence, listening to the beat of the rain on the half-open window, and smelling the cold grave-yard smell of the autumn earth, while her sobs ran through him in shocks of anguish.

Gradually her weeping subsided, and Boyne took courage to lift his hand and pass it once or twice over her hair. She lay in his hold as quietly as a frightened bird, and presently he bent his head and whispered: “Judy — .” Why not? he thought; his heart was beating with reckless bounds. He was free, after all, if it came to that; free to chuck his life away on any madness; and madness this was, he knew. Well, he’d had enough of reason for the rest of his days; and a man is only as old as he feels . . . He bent so close that his lips brushed her ear. “Judy, darling, listen . . . Perhaps after all there’s a way — ”

In a flash she was out of his arms, and ecstatically facing him. “A way — a way of keeping us all together?” Ah, how hard her questions were to answer!

Boyne drew her down again beside him. Crying was a laborious and disfiguring business to her, and her face was so drawn and tear~stained that she looked almost old; but its misery was shot through with hope. If he could have kept her there, not speaking, only answering her with endearments, how easy, how exquisite it would have been! But her face was tense with expectation, and he had to find words, for he knew that his silence would have no meaning for her.

“Judith — ” he began; but she interrupted: “Call me Judy, or I shall think it’s more bad news.” He made no answer, and she flung herself against him with a cry of alarm. “Martin! Martin! You’re not going to desert us too?”

He held her hands, but his own had begun to tremble. “Darling, I’ll never desert you; I’ll stay with you always if you’ll have me; if things go wrong I’ll always be there to look after you and defend you; no matter what happens, we’ll never be separated any more. . .” He broke off, his voice failing before the sudden sunrise in her eyes.

“Oh, Martin — ” She lifted his hands one by one to her wet cheeks, and held them there in silent bliss. “Then you don’t belong any longer to Mrs. Sellars?”

“I don’t belong to any one but you — for as long as ever you’ll have me. . .”

Her eyes still bathed him in their radiance. “My darling, my darling.” She leaned close as she said it, and he dared not move, in his new awe of her nearness — so subtly had she changed from the child of his familiar endearments to the woman he passionately longed for . . . “Darling,” she said again; then, with a face in which the bridal light seemed already kindled, “Oh, Martin, do you really mean you’re going to adopt us all, and we’re all going to stay with you forever?”

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