The Children, by Edith Wharton


The next day Boyne lunched at the Nouveau Luxe alone with Mrs. Wheater and Judith. He had wondered if it would occur to Joyce that it might be preferable to lunch upstairs, in her own rooms; but it had not; and his mind was too dulled with pain for him to care much for his surroundings. No crowd could make him feel farther away from Judith than the unseeing look in her own eyes.

Mrs. Wheater was dressed with a Quaker-like austerity which made her look younger and handsomer than when he had last seen her, in the rakish apparel of the Lido. She had acquired another new voice, as she did with each new phase; this time it was subdued and somewhat melancholy, but less studied than the fluty tones she had affected in Venice. Altogether, Boyne had to admit that she had improved — that Mr. Dobree’s influence had achieved what others had failed to do. After lunch they went upstairs, and Joyce proposed to Judith that, as the rain had stopped, she should take Chipstone and Susan to the Bois de Boulogne. She herself wanted to have a quiet talk with dear Martin — Judith could send the motor back to pick her up at four; no, at half-past three. She had promised to go to a wonderful loan exhibition of Incunabula with Mr. Dobree . . . Judith nodded and disappeared, with a faint smile at Boyne.

Mr. Dobree had opened her eyes to so many marvels, Joyce continued when they were alone. Incunabula, for instance — would Boyne believe that she had never before heard of their existence? Mr. Dobree had thought she must be joking when she asked him what they were. But Martin knew how much chance she had had of cultivating herself in Cliffe’s society . . . Yes, and she was beginning to collect books — first editions — and to form a real library. Didn’t he think it would be a splendid thing for the children — especially for Terry? She blushed to think that while the family travelled over Europe in steam-yachts and Blue Trains and Rolls–Royces, poor Terry had had to feed on the rubbish Scopy could pick up for him in hotel libraries, or the cabinets de lecture of frowsy watering~places. Mr. Dobree had been horrified when he found that Cliffe, with all his millions, had never owned a library! But then he didn’t know Cliffe.

Joyce went on to unfold her plans for the future. She spoke, as usual, as if they were fixed and immutable in every detail. She had decided to buy a place in the country — near either Paris or Dinard, she wasn’t sure which. Probably Dinard on account of Terry’s health. The climate was mild; and it was said that there were educational advantages. If the sea was too strong for him she could find a house somewhere inland. But they must be near a town on account of the children’s education, and yet not in it because of the demoralising influences, and the lack of good air. In a few days she was going down to look about her at Dinard. . .

Boyne knew, she supposed, that she had begun divorce proceedings? Of course she ought to have done it long ago — but in that milieu one’s moral sense got absolutely blunted. Evidence —? Heavens! She already had more than enough to make her own terms. Horrors and horrors . . . There was no doubt, Mr. Dobree said, that the courts would give her the custody of all the children. And from now on they would be the sole object of her life. Didn’t Boyne agree that, at her age, there couldn’t be a more perfect conclusion? Oh, yes, she knew — she looked younger than she really was . . . but there were gray streaks in her hair already; hadn’t he noticed? And she wasn’t going to dye it; not she! She was going to let herself turn frankly into an OLD WOMAN. She didn’t mind the idea a bit. Middle-age was so full of duties and interests of its own; she had a perfect horror of the women who are always dyeing and drugging themselves, in the hopeless attempt to keep young — like that pitiable Syb Lullmer, for instance. She had learned, thank heaven, that there were other things in life. And her first object, of course, was to get the children away from hotels and hotel contacts — from all the Nouveaux Luxes and the “Palaces.” She was counting the minutes till she could create a real home for them, and make them so happy that they would never want to leave it . . . She knew Boyne would approve . . . The monologue ended by her expressing her gratitude for all he had done for the children, and her delight at being reunited to Judith and Chip — Chip, oh, he was a wonder, so fat and tall, and walking and talking like a boy of four. And Judith told her it was all thanks to Boyne. . .

Mrs. Wheater seemed genuinely sorry to think that Bun and Beechy would probably have to return to their father. But perhaps, she added, if the new Princess Buondelmonte was so full of good intentions, and so determined to have her own way, the two children might get a fairly decent bringing-up. Buondelmonte wasn’t as young as he had been, and might be glad to settle down, if his wife made him comfortable, and let him have enough money to gamble at his club. And as for Zinnie — Joyce shrugged, and doubted if either her mother or Cliffe would really take Zinnie on, when it came to the point. She was rather a handful, Zinnie was; no one but Judy could control her. Still, grieved as Joyce would be to give up the “steps,” poor little souls, she was too much used to human ingratitude not to foresee that they might be taken from her at any moment. But her own children — no! Never again. Of that Boyne might be assured. She had learned her lesson, her eyes had been opened to her own folly and imprudence; and Mr. Dobree had absolutely promised her — oh, by the way, wasn’t Martin going to stay and see Mr. Dobree, who would be turning up at any minute now to take her to see the Incunabula? She thought he and Martin had met at Cortina, hadn’t they? Yes, she remembered; Mr. Dobree had been so struck by Martin’s devotion to the children. She hoped so much they might meet again and make friends . . . Boyne thanked her, and thought perhaps another time . . . but he was leaving Paris, probably; he couldn’t wait then . . . He got himself out of the room in a confusion of excuses. . .

All day he wandered through the streets, inconsolably. His will~power seemed paralysed. He was determined to get away from Paris at once, to go to New York first, in quest of a job, and then to whatever end of the world the job should call him. There was no object in his lingering where he was for another hour. He and Rose Sellars had said their last word to each other — and to Judith herself what more had he to say? Yet he could not submit his mind to the idea that his happy unreal life of the last weeks was over; that he would never again enter the pension at Cortina, and see the little Wheaters flocking about him in a tumult of welcome, begging for a romp, a game, a story, clamouring to have their quarrels arbitrated, demanding to be taken on a picnic — with Judith serene above the tumult, or laughing and twittering with the rest . . . When he grew too tired to walk farther he turned in at a post~office, and wrote a cable which he had been revolving for some hours. It was addressed to the New York contractors who had written to ask if he could trace the young engineer who had been his assistant. Luckily he had not been able to, and he cabled: “Should like for myself the job you wrote about. Can I have it? Can start at once. Cable bankers.”

This message despatched, he turned to the telephone booth, rang up the Nouveau Luxe, and asked to speak to Miss Wheater. Interminable minutes passed after he had put in his call; Mrs. Wheater’s maid was found first, who didn’t know where Judith was, or how to find her; then Susan, who said Judith had come back, and gone out again, and that all she knew was that the ladies were going to dine out that evening with Mr. Dobree, and go to the theatre. Then, just as Boyne was turning away discouraged, Judith’s own voice: “Hullo, Martin! Where are you? When can I see you?”

“Now, if you can come. I’m off tonight — to London.” He suddenly found he had decided that without knowing it.

She exclaimed in astonishment, and asked where she was to meet him; and he acquiesced in her suggestion that it should be at a tea-room near her hotel, as it was so late that she would soon have to hurry back for dinner. He jumped into a taxi, secured a table in a remote corner of the tea-room, and met her on the threshold a moment later. It was already long after six, and the rooms were emptying; in a few minutes they would have the place to themselves.

Judith, a little flushed with the haste of her arrival, looked gracefully grown up in her dark coat edged with fur, a pretty antelope bag in her gloved hand. The bareheaded girl of the Dolomites, in sports’ frock and russet shoes, had been replaced by a demure young woman who seemed to Boyne almost a stranger.

“Martin! You’re not really going away tonight?” she began at once, not noticing his request that she should choose between tea-cakes and éclairs.

He said he was, for a few days at any rate; the mere sound of her voice, the look in her eyes, had nearly dissolved his plans again, and his own voice was unsteady.

The fact that it was only for a few days seemed to reassure Judith. He’d be back by the end of the week, she hoped, wouldn’t he? Yes — oh, yes, he said — very probably.

“Because, you know, the children’ll be here by that time,” she announced; and, turning her attention to the trays presented: “Oh, both, I think — yes, I’ll take both.”

“The children?”

“Yes; mother’s just settled it. Mr. Dobree wrote the wire for her. If Nanny gets it in time they’re to start to-morrow. Mr. Dobree thinks we may be able to keep the steps too — he’s going to write himself to Buondelmonte. And he doesn’t believe the Wrenches will ever bother us about Zinnie . . . at least not at present. He’s found out a lot of things about Lord Wrench, and he thinks Zinnia’ll have her hands full with him, without tackling Zinnie too.”

She spoke serenely, almost lightly, as if all her anxieties had been dispelled. Could it be that the mere change of scene, the few hours spent with her mother, had so completely reassured her? She, who had always measured Joyce with such precocious insight, was it possible that she was deluded by her now? Or had she too succumbed to Mr. Dobree’s mysterious influence? Boyne looked at her careless face and wondered.

“But this Dobree — you didn’t fancy him much at Cortina? What makes you believe in him now?”

She seemed a little puzzled, and wrinkled her brows in the effort to find a reason. “I don’t know. He’s funny looking, of course; and rather pompous. And I do like you heaps better, Martin. But he’s been most awfully good about the children, and he can make mother do whatever he tells her. And she says he’s a great lawyer, and his clients almost always win their cases. Oh, Martin, wouldn’t it be heavenly if he could really keep us together, steps and all? He’s sworn to me that he will.” She turned her radiant eyes on Boyne. “Anyhow, the children will be here the day after tomorrow, and that will be splendid, won’t it? You must get back from London as soon as ever you can, and take us all off somewhere for the day, just as if we were still at Cortina.”

Yes, of course he would, Boyne said; on Scopy’s book he would. She lit up at that, asking where they’d better go, and finally settling that, if the rain ever held up, a day at Versailles would be jollier than anything . . . But it must be soon, she reminded him; because in a few days Mrs. Wheater was going to carry them all off to Dinard.

Yes, she pursued, she really did feel that Mr. Dobree, just in a few weeks, had gained more influence over her mother than any one else ever had. Judith had had a long talk with him that morning, and he had told her frankly that he was doing it all out of interest in the children, and because he wanted to help her — wasn’t that dear of him? Anyhow, they were all going to stand together, grown ups and children, and put up a last big fight. (“On Scopy’s book,” Boyne interpolated with a strained smile.) And they were to have a big house in the country, with lots of dogs and horses, she continued. And the children were never to go to hotels any more. And Terry was to have a really first-rate tutor, and be sent to school in Switzerland as soon as he was strong enough; in another year, perhaps.

Boyne sat watching her with insatiable eyes. She looked so efficient, so experienced — yet what could be surer proof of her childishness than this suddenly revived faith in the future? He saw that whoever would promise to keep the children together would gain a momentary hold over her — as he once had, alas! And he saw also that the mere change of scene, the excitement of the flight from Cortina, the encouragement which her mother’s new attitude gave her, were so many balloons lifting her up into the blue . . . “It will be Versailles, don’t you think so?” she began again. “Or, if it rains deluges, what about the circus, and a big tea afterward, somewhere where Chip and Nanny could come too?” She looked at him with her hesitating smile. “I thought, perhaps, if you didn’t mind — but, no, darling,” she broke off decisively, “we won’t ask Mr. Dobree!”

“Lord — I should hope not; not if I’m giving the party.” He found the voice and laugh she expected, gave her back her banter, discussed and fixed with her the day and hour of the party. And all the while there echoed in his ears, more insistently than anything she was saying, a line or two from the chorus of Lemures, in “Faust,” which Rose had read aloud one evening at Cortina.

Who made the room so mean and bare —
Where are the chairs, the tables where?
It was lent for a moment only —

A moment only: not a bad title for the history of his last few months! A moment only; and he had always known it. “An episode,” he thought, “it’s been only an episode. One of those things that come up out of the sea, on a full-moon night, playing the harp . . . Yes; but sometimes the episodes last, and the things one thought eternal wither like grass — and only the gods know which it will be . . . if THEY do. . .

“L’addition, mademoiselle? Good Lord, child; four éclairs? And a Dobree dinner in the offing! Ah, thrice-happy infancy, as the poet said . . . Yes, here’s your umbrella. Take my arm, and we’ll nip round on foot to the back door of the Luxe. You’ve eaten so much that I haven’t got enough left to pay for a taxi. . .”

From the threshold of the hotel she called to him, rosy under her shining umbrella: “Thursday morning, then, you’ll fetch us all at ten?” And he called back: “On Scopy’s book, I will!” as the rain engulfed him.

On the day fixed for the children’s picnic Boyne lay half asleep on the deck of a South American liner. It was better so — a lot better. The morning after he had parted from Judith at the door of the Nouveau Luxe the summons had come: “Job yours please sail immediately for Rio particulars on arrival”; and he had just had time to pitch his things into his portmanteaux, catch the first train for London, and scramble on board his boat at Liverpool.

A lot better so . . . The busy man’s way of liquidating hopeless situations. It reminded him of the old times when, at the receipt of such a summons, cares and complications fell from him like dust from a shaken garment. It would not be so now; his elasticity was gone. Yet already, after four days at sea, he was beginning to feel a vague solace in the empty present, and in the future packed with duties. No hesitating, speculating, wavering to and fro — he was to be caught as soon as he landed, and thrust into the stiff harness of his work. And meanwhile, more and more miles of sea were slipping in between him and the last months, making them already seem remote and vapoury compared with the firm outline of the future.

The day was mild, with a last touch of summer on the lazy waves over which they were gliding . . . He closed his eyes and slept. . .

At Versailles too it was mild; there were yellow leaves still on the beeches of the long walks; they formed golden tunnels, with hazy blueish vistas where the park melted into the blur of the forest. But the gardens were almost deserted; it was too late in the season for the children chasing their hoops and balls down the alleys, the groups of nurses knitting and gossiping on wooden chairs under the great stone Dianas and Apollos.

Funny — he and the little Wheaters seemed to have the lordly pleasure-grounds to themselves. The clipped walls of beech and hornbean echoed with their shouts and laughter. What a handful the little Wheaters were getting to be! Terry, now, could run and jump with the rest; and as for Chip, rounder than ever in a white fur coat and tasselled cap, his waddle was turning into a scamper. . .

In the sun, under a high protecting hedge, Miss Scope and Nanny sat and beamed upon their children; and Susan flew down the vistas after Chip. . .

Boyne and Judith were alone. They had wandered away into one of the bosquets: solitary even in summer, with vacant-faced divinities niched in green, broken arcades, toy temples deserted of their gods. On this November day, when mist was everywhere, mist trailing through the half-bare trees, lying in a faint bloom on the lichened statues, oozing up from the layers of leaves underfoot, the place seemed the ghostly setting of dead days. Boyne looked down at Judith, and even her face was ghostly . . . “Come,” he said with a shiver, “let’s get back into the sun — .” Outside of the bosquet, down the alley, the children came storming toward them, shouting, laughing and wrangling. Boyne, laughing too, caught up the furry Chip, and swung him high in air. Bun, to attract his attention, turned a new somersault at his feet, and Zinnie and Beechy squealed: “Martin, now’s the time for presents!” For, since the Princess Buondelmonte had been so shocked by their cupidity, it had become a joke with the children to be always petitioning for presents.

“Little devils — as if I could ever leave them!” Boyne thought.

“Tea, sir?” said the steward. “Ham sandwiches?”

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