The Children, by Edith Wharton


There was no doubt about the Wheaters’ welcome. When Boyne entered the big hall of their hotel on the Grand Canal he instantly recognized Cliffe Wheater in the florid figure which seemed to fill the half-empty resonant place with its own exuberance. Cliffe Wheater had been just like that at Harvard. The only difference was that he and his cigar had both grown bigger. And he seemed to have as little difficulty in identifying Boyne.

“Hul-LO!” he shouted, so that the hall rocked with his greeting, and the extremely slim young lady in a Quaker gray frock and endless pearls to whom he was talking turned her head toward the newcomer with a little pout of disdain. The pout lingered as her eyes rested on Boyne, but he perceived that it was not personally addressed to him. She had a smooth egg-shaped face as sweetly vacuous as that of the wooden bust on which Boyne’s grandmother’s caps used to be done up, with carmine lips of the same glossy texture, and blue-gray eyes with long lashes that curved backward (like the bust’s) as though they were painted on her lids; and Boyne had the impression that her extreme repose of manner was due to the fear of disturbing this facial harmony.

“Why, Martin dear!” she presently breathed in a low level voice, putting out a hand heavy with rings; and Boyne understood that he was in the presence of the once-redundant Joyce Wheater, and that in her new fashion she was as glad to see him as ever.

“I’ve grown so old that you didn’t recognise me; but I should have known YOU anywhere!” she reproached him in the same smooth silvery voice.

“Old — you?” he found himself stammering; but the insipidities she evidently awaited were interrupted by her husband.

“Know him? I should say so! Not an ounce more flesh on him than there used to be, after all these years: how d’yer do it, I wonder? Great old times we used to have in the groves of John Harvard, eh, Martin, my boy? ‘Member that Cambridge girl you used to read poetry to? POETRY! She was a looker, too! ‘Come into the garden, Maud’ . . . GARDEN they used to call it in those days! And now I hear you’re a pal of my son’s . . . Well, no, I don’t mean Chipstone — ” he smiled largely — “but poor old Terry . . . Hullo, why here’s the caravan! Joyce, I say — you’ve told them they’re to be parked out at the Pension Grimani? All but Chip, that is. Can’t part with Chipstone, can we? Here they all come, Judy in the lead as usual. Hullo, Judy girl! Chippo, old man, how goes it? Give us your fist, my son.” He caught his last-born out of Judith’s arms, and the others had to wait, a little crestfallen, yet obviously unsurprised, till the proud father had filled his eyes with the beauty of his last achievement. “Catch on to him, will you, Joyce? Look at old man Chippo! Must have put on another five pounds since our last meeting — I swear he has . . . you just feel this calf of his! Hard as a tennis ball, it is . . . Does you no end of credit, Judy. Here, pass him on to the room next to your mother’s . . . Wish you’d develop that kind of calf, Terry boy. . .”

“Look at MY calfs, too! I can show them upside down!” shouted Bun, bursting in with a handspring upon these endearments; while Blanca, wide-eyed and silent, fastened her absorbed gaze on the golden thatch of her mother’s intricately rippled head, and Joyce clasped the children, one after another, to her pearls.

Give Terry a tutor? Boy’s own idea, was it? Good old chap — always poking around with books. Wheater would have thought that Terry knew enough to be his own tutor by this time . . . Funny, wasn’t it, for a son of HIS? Cut out to be a Doctor of Divinity; or President of a University, maybe! Talk of heredity — for him and Joyce to have turned out such a phenomenon! Hoped Chipstone wouldn’t turn into a Doctor of Divinity too. But of course they’d give Terry a tutor — wouldn’t they, Joyce? The boy was dead right; he couldn’t be loafing about any longer with the women . . . Did Boyne happen to know of a tutor, by any chance? Wheater’d never before had anything of the sort to bother about. Right up on schools, of course — always meant to send Terry to Groton; but his rotten temperature had knocked that out, so now. . .

The three were sitting after dinner on the balcony of the Wheaters’ apartment, watching the Grand Canal, gondola-laden, lamp-flecked, furrowed with darting motor-boats, drift beneath them in rich coils and glassy volutes. There was nothing doing in Venice, Wheater had explained, so early in the season; it was as dead as the grave. Just a handy place to meet the children in, and look them over before they were packed off to the Engadine or Leysin. And besides, the Wheaters had come there to pick up their new steam~yacht; the “Fancy Girl,” a real beauty. They were going on a short cruise in her before they left for Cowes, and Venice was a handy place to try her out. By-and-by, if Boyne liked, he and Joyce and Wheater might drift out to the Piazza, and take an ice at Florian’s, and a turn on the Canal — not very exciting, but the best Wheater could suggest in the circumstances. But Boyne said: why not stay where they were? And Joyce, with a shrug that just sufficiently displaced the jet strap attaching her dress to her white shoulder, remarked that Cliffe never COULD stay where he was, but that nobody objected to his painting Venice red if he wanted to. . .

“Where’d I get the paint, at this time of year? Nobody here but guys with guide-books, and old maids being photo’d feeding the pigeons . . . Hotels cram full of ’em . . . Well, look here; about that tutor? You haven’t come across anybody on your travels that would do, Martin? University chap, and that sort of thing?”

Martin didn’t believe he had; but Mrs. Wheater, lifting a white arm to flick her cigarette into the Canal, said: “I know a tutor.”

“Hell — you DO?” her husband laughed incredulously. “‘Nother cigar, old chap? These Coronas ain’t bad — specially made for me.” He loosed the golden sheathings from a cigar and held his lighter to it.

“I know a tutor,” Mrs. Wheater repeated. “Exactly the right person, if only we can persuade him to take the job.”

“Well — I’ll be blowed! Where’d you excavate him?”

She was silent for a moment; then she said: “I’ve been going to the galleries with him. It’s the first time I’ve ever SEEN Venice. Fanny Tradeschi got him out from England to tutor her boys, and then she was bored here, and rushed back to Paris, and left him stranded. His name is Ormerod — Gerald Ormerod. It would be the greatest privilege for Terry if he could be persuaded. . .”

“Oh, I guess I can persuade him all right. I don’t believe Fanny remembered to settle with him before she left.”

“No, she didn’t; but he’s awfully proud. You’d better not take that tone with him, Cliffe.”

“What; the tone of asking him what his screw is?”

“Shouting like that at the top of your lungs — as if everybody less rich than yourself was deaf,” said his wife, with a slight steel edge in her silver voice.

“Hul-LO! That the size of it? Well, fix it up with him any old way you like. I’m off for a round of the town . . . Not coming along, Martin? Well, so long . . . Can’t for the life of me see why you’ve stuck yourself down at that frowsy pension with the children; I’m sure I could have bullied the manager here into giving you a room . . . Have it your own way, though. And you and Joyce can map out a tour for to-morrow: only no galleries for me, thank you! Look here — d’ye think I’d disturb Chipstone Wheater Esqre if I was just to poke my head in and take a look at him on my way out? Listen — my shoes don’t creak the least bit . . . Oh, hang it, I don’t care, I’m going to, anyway. . .”

Of the Joyce Mervin of Boyne’s youth, the young Joyce Wheater of her early married days, nothing, apparently, was left in the slim figure leaning over the balcony at Boyne’s elbow. Then she had been large, firm and rosy, with a core of artless sensibility; now she seemed to have gone through some process of dematerialization (no doubt there were specialists for this too) which had left a translucent and imponderable body about a hard little kernel of spirit.

“It’s impossible to make Cliffe feel nuances,” she murmured to her cigarette after Wheater had gone; then, turning to Boyne: “But now we can have a good talk — just like old times, can’t we?” She settled down in her armchair, and exchanged her measured syllables for a sort of steely volubility which rattled about Boyne’s head like a hail of confetti. She was awfully glad to see him, really she was, she declared; he DID believe her when she said that, didn’t he? He’d always been such a perfect friend, in the silly old days when she herself was just a stupid baby, years younger in experience than Judy was now . . . What did Martin think of Judy, by the way? Did he appreciate what a miracle the child was? Positively, she was older and wiser than any of them; and the only human being who had any influence whatever with Cliffe. . .

Oh, well: Cliffe . . . yes . . . It was awfully dear and sweet of Martin to say that he was glad she and Cliffe had come together again, and she was glad too, and she was ever so proud of Chip, and she DID recognize poor Cliffe’s qualities, she always had, even when things were at their worst . . . but, there, it was no use pretending with Martin, it never had been; and there was no denying that Cliffe had got into dreadfully bad hands when she left him . . . utterly demoralized and cowed by that beastly Lacrosse woman . . . and the money pouring out like water . . . Yes, she, Joyce, had seen it was her duty to take him back; and so she had. Because she still believed in the sanctity of marriage, in spite of everything. She hoped Martin did too? For if you didn’t, what was there left to hold society together? But all the same, if one came to feel that by living with a man, even if he WAS one’s husband, one was denying one’s Ideal: that was awful too, wasn’t it? Didn’t Martin think it was awful?

Yes, Martin supposed it was; but he rather thought a bunch of jolly children were a pretty good substitute for any old Ideal he’d ever met. Mrs. Wheater laughed, with somewhat more of the old resonance, and said she thought so too, and that was what Judy had argued — no, Martin would never know how wonderful Judy had been during the ghastly days when Buondelmonte was dragging her, Joyce, through the mire, literally through the mire! “Why, there were things I couldn’t tell even YOU, Martin — ”

Martin felt his gorge rise. “Things I hope that Judy wasn’t told, then?”

Mrs. Wheater’s shoulder again slipped its light trammels in a careless shrug. “Bless you, you don’t have to tell the modern child things! They seem to be born knowing them. Haven’t you found that out, you dear old Rip van Winkle? Why, Judy’s like a mother to me, I assure you.”

“She’s got a pretty big family to mother, hasn’t she?” Boyne rejoined, and Mrs. Wheater sighed contentedly: “Oh, but she loves it, you know! It’s her hobby. Why, she tried to be a mother to Zinnia Lacrosse . . . Fancy a child of Judy’s age attempting to keep a movie star straight! She used to give good advice to Buondelmonte . . . But that nightmare’s over now, and we’re all together again, and there’s only Terry, poor darling, to worry about. I DO worry about him, you know, Martin. And isn’t it sweet of him to want to be properly educated? For Cliffe, of course, education has always just been college sports and racing-motors. That’s one reason why I’ve missed so much . . . but I am determined that Terry shall have all the opportunities I haven’t had. This tutor I was speaking about, Gerald Ormerod — I wonder if you’d see him for me to-morrow, Martin? It’s no use asking Cliffe — he’d just shout and brag, and spoil the whole thing. Gerald — I’ve got to calling him Gerald because Fanny Tradeschi always did — he comes of very good people, you see, and he’s almost too sensitive . . . too much of an idealist . . . I can’t tell you what it’s been to me, these last weeks, to see Venice through the eyes of some one who really cares for beauty . . . You’ll have a talk with him about Terry, Martin dear? I’m sure Cliffe would give any salary you advise — and it would be the saving of our poor Terry to be with some one really sensitive and cultivated . . . and Bun, too . . . he might put some sort of reason into Bun, who’s beginning to get quite out of hand with Scopy . . . And, Martin, don’t forget: you can fix the salary as high as you like.”

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