The Children, by Edith Wharton


The children, at first, had been unanimously and immovably opposed to going to Monreale.

Long before the steamer headed for Palermo the question was debated by them with a searching thoroughness. Judith, who had never been to Sicily, had consulted Boyne as to the most profitable way of employing the one day allotted to them, and after inclining to Segesta, Boyne, on finding that everybody, including Chip, was to be of the party, suggested Monreale as more accessible.

“And awfully beautiful too?” Judith was looking at him with hungry ignorant eyes.

“One of the most beautiful things in the world. The mosaics alone. . .”

She clasped ecstatic hands. “We must go there! I’ve seen so little — ”

“Why, I thought you’d travelled from one end of Europe to the other.”

“That doesn’t show you anything but sleeping-cars and Palace Hotels, does it? Mother and father never even have a guide-book; they just ask the hall-porter where to go. And then something always seems to prevent their going. You must show me everything, everything.”

“Well, we’ll begin with Monreale.”

But the children took a different view. Miss Scope, unluckily, had found an old Baedeker on the steamer, and refreshing her mind with hazy reminiscences gleaned from former pupils, had rediscovered the name of a wonderful ducal garden containing ever so many acres of orange-trees always full of flowers and fruit. Her old pupils had gone there, she recalled, and been allowed by the gardeners to pick up from the ground as many oranges as they could carry away.

At this the children, a close self-governing body, instantly voted as one man for the Giardino Aumale. Boyne had already observed that, in spite of Judith’s strong influence, there were moments when she became helpless against their serried opposition, and in the present case argument and persuasion entirely failed. At length Terry, evidently wishing, as the man of the party, to set the example of reasonableness, remarked that Judith, who had all the bother of looking after them, ought to go wherever she chose. Bun hereupon squared his mouth for a howl, and Blanca observed tartly that by always pretending to give up you generally got what you wanted. “Well, you’d better try then,” Terry retorted severely, and the blood rose under his sister’s delicate skin as if he had struck her.

“Terry! What a beast you are! I didn’t mean — ”

Meanwhile Beechy, melting into tears at the sight of Bun’s distress, was hugging his tumbled head against her breast with murmurs of: “Zitto, zitto, carissimo! Cuor mio!” and glaring angrily at Judith and Terry.

“Well, I want to go where there’s zoranges to eat,” said Zinnie, in her sharp metallic American voice, with which she might almost have peeled the fruit. “ — ‘r if I don’t, I want something a lot better’nstead, n’ I mean to have it!”

Boyne laughed, and Judith murmured despairingly: “We’d better go to their orange-garden.”

“Look here,” Terry interposed, “the little ones are mad to hear the end of that story of the old old times, about the two children who’d never seen a motor. They’re all so fed up with airships and machinery and X rays and wireless; and you know you promised to go on with that story some day. Why couldn’t we go to the place you want to see, and you’ll promise and swear to finish the story there, and to have chocolates for tea?”

“Oh — and oranges; I’ll supply the oranges,” Boyne interposed. “There’s a jolly garden next to the cloister, and I’ll persuade the guardian to let us in, and we’ll have a picnic tea there.”

“An’masses of zoranges?” Zinnie stipulated, with a calculating air, while Beechy surreptitiously dried Bun’s tears on her crumpled pinafore, and Bun, heartlessly forsaking her to turn handsprings on the deck, shrieked out: “Noranges! Noranges! NORANGES!”

“Oh, very well; I knew — ” Blanca murmured, shooting her gray glance toward Boyne; and Judith, lifting up Chip, triumphantly declared: “He says he wants to go to Monreale.”

“That settles it, of course,” said Blanca, with resigned eyelids.

A wordy wrangle having arisen between Zinnie, Beechy and Bun as to whether the fruit for which they clamoured should be called zoranges or noranges, Judith and Miss Scope took advantage of the diversion to settle the details of the expedition with Boyne, and the next morning, when the steamer lay to off Palermo, the little party, equipped and eager, headed the line of passengers for the tug.

Boyne, stretched out at length on a stone bench in the sun, lay listening with half-closed eyes to Judith’s eager plaintive voice. He had bribed the custodian to let them pass out of the cloister into the lavender-scented cathedral garden drowsing on its warm terrace above the orange-orchards. Far off across the plain the mountains descended in faint sapphire gradations to the denser sapphire of the sea, along which the domed and towered city gleamed uncertainly. And here, close by, sat Judith Wheater in the sun, the children heaped at her knee, and Scopy and Nanny, at a discreet distance, knitting, and nursing the tea-basket. Judith’s voice went on: “But when Polycarp and Lullaby drove home in the victoria with the white horse to their mamma’s palace they found that the zebra door-mat had got up and was eating all the flowers in the drawing-room vases, and the big yellow birds on the wall-paper were all flying about, and making the most dreadful mess scattering seeds about the rooms. But the most wonderful thing was that the cuckoo from the nursery clock was gone too, so that the nurses couldn’t tell what time it was, and when the children ought to be put to bed and to get up again. . .”

“Oh, how perfectly lovely,” chanted Bun, and Beechy chorused: “Lovelly, lovelly. . .”

“Not at all,” said Judith severely. “It was the worst thing that had happened to them yet, for the cook didn’t know what time it was either, and nobody in the house could tell her, so there was no breakfast ready; and the cook just went off for a ride on the zebra, because she had no carriage of her own, and she said there was nothing else to do.”

“Why didn’t they tell their father’n’mother?” Zinnie queried in a practical tone.

“Because they’d got new ones, who didn’t know about the cuckoo either, I guess,” said Bun with authority.

“Then why didn’t the children go with their old fathers an’ mothers?” Zinnie inserted.

“Because their old mother’s friend, Sally Money, wasn’t big enough . . . big enough . . . big enough . . . for her to take them all with her. . .” Bun broke off, visibly puzzled as to what was likely to follow.

“Big enough to take them all on her back and carry them away with her. But I daresay the new father and mother would have been all right,” Judith pursued, “if only the children had been patient and known how to treat them; only just at first they didn’t; and besides, at the time I am telling you about, they happened to be away travelling — ”

“Then why didn’t the children telephone to them to come back?”

“Because there weren’t any telephones in those days.”

“No telephones? Does it say so in the hist’ry books?” snapped Zinnie, sceptical.

“Course it does, you silly. Why, when Scopy was little,” Terry reminded them, “she lived in a house where there wasn’t any telephone.”

Beechy, ever tender-hearted, immediately prepared to cry at the thought of Scopy’s privation; but Scopy interpolated severely: “Now, Beatrice, don’t be FOREIGN— ” and the story-teller went on: “So there was no way whatever for them to get any breakfast, and — ”

“Oh, I know, I know! They starved to death, poverini!” Beechy lamented, promptly transferring her grief to another object, and flinging her little brown arms heavenward in an agony of participation.

“Not just yet. For they met on the edge of the wood — ”

(“What wood? There wasn’t any wood before,” said Zinnie sharply.)

“No, but there was one now; for all the trees and flowers from the wall-papers had come off the wall, and gone out into the garden to grow, so that the big yellow birds should have a wood to build their nests in, and the zebras should — ”

“Zebras! There was only one zebra.” This, sardonically, from a grown-up looking, indifferent Blanca.

“Stupid! He’d been married already and had a lot of perfectly lovely norphans and three dear little steps like us, and Mrs. Zebra she had a big family too, no, she had two big families,” Zinnie announced, enumerating the successive groups on her small dimpled fingers.

“Oh, how lovely for the zebra! Then all the little zebras stayed together always afterward — f’rever and ever. Say they did — oh, Judith, SAY it!” Beechy clamoured.

“Of course they did. (Zinnie, you mustn’t call Blanca stupid.) But all this time Polycarp and Lullaby were starving, because the clock had stopped and the cook had gone out on the zebra. . .”

“And they were starving — slowly starving to death . . .” Zinnie gloated.

“Yes; but on the edge of the wood whom did they meet but a great big tall gentleman with a mot — no, I mean a pony-carriage. . .”

“What’s a pony?”

“A little horse about as big as Bun — ”

(“Oh, oh — I’m a pony!” shouted Bun, kicking and neighing.)

“And the pony-carriage was full — absolutely brim full of — what do you think?” Judith concluded, her question drowned in a general cry of “Oranges! No, noranges — zoranges!!!” from the leaping scrambling group before whom, at the dramatic moment, Boyne had obligingly uncorded his golden bales, while Miss Scope and Nanny murmured: “Now, children, children — now — ”

“And this is our chance,” said Boyne, “to make a dash for the cathedral.”

He slipped his hand through Judith’s arm, and drew her across the cloister and into the great echoing basilica. At first, after their long session on the sun-drenched terrace, the place seemed veiled in an impenetrable twilight. But gradually the tremendous walls and spandrils began to glow with their own supernatural radiance, the solid sunlight of gold and umber and flame-coloured mosaics, against which figures of saints, prophets, kings and sages stood out in pale solemn hues. Boyne led the girl toward one of the shafts of the nave, and they sat down on its projecting base.

“Now from here you can see — ”

But he presently perceived that she could see nothing. Her little profile was studiously addressed to the direction in which he pointed, and her head thrown back so that her lips were parted, and her long lashes drew an upward curve against her pale skin; but nothing was happening in the face which was usually the theatre of such varied emotions.

She sat thus for a long time, and he did not move or speak again. Finally she turned to him, and said in a shy voice (it was the first time he had noticed any shyness in her): “I suppose I’m much more ignorant than you could possibly have imagined.”

“You mean that you don’t particularly care for all this?”

She lowered her voice to answer: “I believe all those big people up there frighten me a little.” And she added: “I’m glad I didn’t bring Chip.”

“Child!” He let his hand fall on hers with a faint laugh. What a child she became as soon as she was away from the other children!

“But I do want to admire it, you know,” she went on earnestly, “because you do, and Scopy says you know such a lot about everything.”

“It’s not a question of knowing — ” he began; and then broke off. For wasn’t it, after all, exactly that? How many thousand threads of association, strung with stored images of the eye and brain, memories of books, of pictures, of great names and deeds, ran between him and those superhuman images, tracing a way from his world to theirs? Yes; it had been stupid of him to expect that a child of fifteen or sixteen, brought up in complete ignorance of the past, and with no more comprehension than a savage of the subtle and allusive symbolism of art, should feel anything in Monreale but the oppression of its awful unreality. And yet he was disappointed, for he was already busy at the masculine task of endowing the woman of the moment with every quality which made life interesting to himself.

“Woman — but she’s not a woman! She’s a child.” His thinking of her as anything else was the crowning absurdity of the whole business. Obscurely irritated with himself and her, he stood up, turning his back impatiently on the golden abyss of the apse. “Come along; it’s chilly here after our sun-bath. Gardens are best, after all.”

In the doorway she paused a moment and sent her gaze a little wistfully down the mighty perspective they were leaving. “Some day, I know, I shall want to come back here,” she said.

“Oh, well, we’ll come back together,” he replied perfunctorily.

But outside in the sunlight, with the children leaping about her, and guiding her with joyful cries toward the outspread tea-things, she was instantly woman again — gay, competent, composed, and wholly mistress of the situation. . .

Yes; decidedly, the more Boyne saw of her the more she perplexed him, the more difficult he found it to situate her in time and space. He did not even know how old she was — somewhere between fifteen and seventeen, he conjectured — nor had he as yet made up his mind if she were pretty. In the cathedral, just now, he had thought her almost plain, with the dull droop of her mouth, her pale complexion which looked dead when unlit by gaiety, her thick brown hair, just thick and just brown, without the magic which makes some women’s hair as alive as their lips, and her small impersonal nose, a nose neither perfectly drawn like Blanca’s nor impudently droll like Zinnie’s. The act of thus cataloguing her seemed to reduce her to a bundle of negatives; yet here in the sunshine, her hat thrown off her rumpled hair, and all the children scrambling over her, her mouth became a flame, her eyes fountains of laughter, her thin frail body a quiver of light — he didn’t know how else to put it. Whatever she was, she was only intermittently; as if her body were the mere vehicle of her moods, the projection of successive fears, hopes, ardours, with hardly any material identity of its own. Strange, he mused, that such an imponderable and elusive creature should be the offspring of the two solid facts he recalled the Cliffe Wheaters as being. For a reminder of Joyce Mervin as he had known her, tall, vigorous and substantial, one must turn to Blanca, not Judith. If Blanca had not had to spare a part of herself for the making of Terry she would have been the reproduction of her mother. But Judith was like a thought, a vision, an aspiration — all attributes to which Mrs. Cliffe Wheater could never have laid claim. And Boyne, when the tired and sleepy party were piled once more into the motor, had not yet decided what Judith looked like, and still less if he really thought her pretty.

He fell asleep that night composing a letter to the lady in the Dolomites. “ . . . what you would think. A strange little creature who changes every hour, hardly seems to have any personality of her own except when she’s mothering her flock. Then she’s extraordinary: playmate, mother and governess all in one; and the best of each in its way. As for her very self, when she’s not with them, you grope for her identity and find an instrument the wind plays on, a looking-glass that reflects the clouds, a queer little sensitive plate, very little and very sensitive — ” and with a last flash of caution, just as sleep overcame him, he added: “Unluckily not in the least pretty.”

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