The Children, by Edith Wharton


Two days later Boyne sat taking his morning coffee with Judith Wheater at a rickety iron table in the mouldy garden of the Pension Grimani. He had bribed a maid to carry out their breakfast, so that they might escape the stuffiness of the low-ceilinged dining~room, full of yesterday’s dinner smells, of subdued groups of old maids and giggling bands of school-girls, and of the too-pervasive clatter of the corner table about which Scopy and Nanny had gathered their flock. It was Boyne’s last day in Venice, and he wanted a clear hour of it with Judith. Presently the family would surge up like a spring tide, every one of them — from Mr. and Mrs. Wheater, with the “Fancy Girl” lying idle off San Giorgio, and a string of unemployed motors at Fusina, to Beechy and Zinnie squabbling over their new necklaces from the Merceria, and Miss Scope with a fresh set of problems for the summer — all wanting Boyne’s advice or sympathy or consolation, or at least his passive presence at their debates. All this was rather trying, and the eager proximity of the little Wheaters made privacy impossible. Yet Boyne was more than ever glad that he had resisted the persuasions of their parents, and carried his luggage to the Pension Grimani instead of to the Palace Hotel. The mere existence of Palace Hotels was an open wound to him. Not that he was indifferent to the material advantages they offered. Nobody appreciated hot baths and white tiles, electric bed-lamps and prompt service, more than he whose lot was usually cast in places so remote from them. He loved Palace Hotels; but he loathed the mere thought of the people who frequented them.

Judy, he discovered, was of the same mind. Boyne had felt a little resentful of the fact that only the Wheaters’ youngest-born was to share the luxury of their hotel; it seemed rather beastly to banish the others to frowsy lodgings around the corner. At the moment he had avoided Judy’s eye, fearing to catch in it the reflection of his thought: most of Judy’s feelings were beginning to reverberate in him. But now, in the leisure of their first talk since landing, he learned that no such feeling had marred the meeting of the little Wheaters with their parents.

Blanca, Judith owned, probably had minded a little, just at first. Silly Blanca — she was always rather jealous of the fuss that Joyce and father made about Chip. Besides, she loved smartness, and picking up new ideas about clothes from the chic women in hotel restaurants; and she liked to be seen about with Joyce, who was so smart herself, and to have other smart ladies say: “Is this your dear little girl? We should have known her anywhere from the likeness.”

But it was precisely because of Blanca that Judith most disliked going to “Palaces.” “Ever since she got engaged to the lift-boy at Biarritz. . .”

“Engaged?” Boyne gasped. “But, Judy . . . but Blanca’s barely eleven. . .”

“Oh, I was engaged myself at Blanca’s age — to a page at a skating~rink.” Judith’s small face, as she made the admission, had the wistful air of middle-age looking back on the sweet follies of youth. “But that was different. He was a very nice little Swiss boy; and I only gave him one of my hair-ribbons, and he gave me one of his livery buttons; and when he went home for his holiday he sent me dried edelweiss, and forget-me-nots pasted on cards. But these modern children are different. Blanca’s boy wanted a ring with a real stone in it; and he was a horrid big thing with a fat nose that wriggled. Terry and I could hardly bear it. And when Scopy found out about it she made an awful row, and threatened to write to mother . . . so altogether we’re better off here. In fact I wrote to father that we’d better put up at a place like this, where the children can rush about and make a noise, and nobody bothers. I think it’s rather jolly here, don’t you, Martin?”

She had called him Martin, as a matter of course, since the second day out from Algiers; and he could never hear his name in her fresh young trill without a stir of pleasure.

He said he thought the Pension Grimani awfully jolly, and was glad it suited the rest of them as well as it did him. Then she asked if it was all right about Terry’s tutor, and what he thought of the young man. The answer to this was more difficult. Boyne was not sure what he thought. He had had an interview with Mr. Ormerod on the previous day; an interview somewhat halting and embarrassed on his own part, perfectly firm and self-possessed on the tutor’s. Mr. Ormerod was a good-looking young Englishman with the University stamp upon him. He had very fair hair, somewhat long and rumpled, lazy ironic gray eyes, and a discontented mouth. He looked clever, moody and uncertain; but he was cultivated and intelligent, and it seemed certain that Terry would learn more, and be more usefully occupied, in his care than in Miss Scope’s. Boyne’s embarrassment proceeded not only from the sense of his unfitness to choose a tutor for anybody, but from the absurdity of having to do so with the pupil’s parents on the spot. Mr. Ormerod, however, seemed neither surprised nor disturbed. He had seen Terry, and was sure he was an awfully good little chap; his only hesitation was as to the salary. Boyne, who had fixed it to the best of his judgment, saw at once that, though it exceeded the usual terms, it was below Mr. Ormerod’s mark. The young man explained that the Princess Tradeschi had let him down rather badly, and that it was a beastly nuisance, but he really couldn’t give in about his screw. Boyne remembered Mrs. Wheater’s parting injunction, and to get over the difficulty suggested throwing in Bun. “There’s the little Buondelmonte boy — a sort of step-son; he’s rather a handful for the governess, and perhaps you would take him on for part of the time. In that case — ”

This closed the transaction to Mr. Ormerod’s advantage, and enabled Boyne to report to the Wheaters that their eldest son’s education would begin the next day. And now he had to answer Judith’s question.

“He strikes me as clever; but I don’t know how hard he’ll make Terry work.”

“Oh, Terry will make HIM work. And as long as Joyce wants it I’m glad it’s settled. If she hadn’t, father might have kicked at the price. Not that he isn’t awfully generous to us; but he can’t see why people should want to be educated when they don’t have to. What does it ever LEAD to, he says.” She wrinkled her young brows pensively. “I don’t know; do you? I can’t explain. But if Terry wants it I’m sure it’s right. You’ve read a lot yourself, haven’t you? I don’t suppose I shall ever care much about reading . . . but what’s the use of bothering, when I should never have a minute’s time, no matter how much I cared to do it?”

He reminded her that she might have time later, and added that, now that her parents were in an educational mood, he wondered she didn’t take advantage of it to get herself sent to a good school, if only to be able to keep up with Terry. At this she smiled a little wistfully; it was the same shy doubtful smile with which she had looked about her in the cathedral at Monreale, trying to puzzle out what he saw in it. But her frown of responsibility returned. “Go to school? Me? But when, I’d like to know? There’ll always be some of the children left to look after. Why, I shall be too old for school before Chip is anywhere near Terry’s age. And besides, I never mean to leave the children — NEVER!” She brought the word out with the shrill emphasis he had already heard in her voice when her flock had to be protected or reproved. “We’ve all sworn that,” she added. “We took an awful oath one day at Biskra that we’d never be separated again, no matter what happened. Even Chip had to hold up his fist and say: ‘I swear.’ We did it on Scopy’s ‘Cyclopædia of Nursery Remedies.’ And if things went wrong again, and I was off at one of your schools, who’d see to it that the oath was kept?”

“But now that all the children are safely with your own people, couldn’t you let the oath take care of itself, and think a little of what’s best for you?”

She raised her eyes with a puzzled stare which made them seem as young as Zinnie’s. “You’d like me to go to school?”

He returned the look with one of equal gravity. “Most awfully.”

Her colour rose a little. “Then I should like to.”

“Well, then — ”

She shook her head and her flush faded. “I don’t suppose you’ll ever understand — you or anybody. How could I leave the children now? I’ve got to get them off to Switzerland in another fortnight; this is no place for Terry. And suppose Mr. Ormerod decides he won’t come with us — ”

“Won’t come with you? But it’s precisely what he’s been engaged to do!”

She gave an impatient shrug like her mother’s, and turned on Boyne a little face sharp with interrogation. “Well, then, suppose it was mother who didn’t want him to?”

“Your mother? Why, child, it was she who found him. She knows all about him; she — ”

“She jolly well likes doing Venice with him,” Judy completed his sentence with a hideous promptness. It was Boyne’s turn to redden. He averted his eyes from her with one of Miss Scope’s abrupt twists, and pushed his chair back as if to get up. Judy leant across the table and touched his sleeve timidly.

“I’ve said something you don’t like, Martin?”

“You’ve said something exceedingly silly. Something I should hate to hear if you were grown up. But at your age it’s merely silly, and doesn’t matter.”

She was on her feet in a flash, quivering with anger. “My age? My age? What do you know about my age? I’m as old as your grandmother. I’m as old as the hills. I suppose you think I oughtn’t to say things like that about mother — but what am I to do, when they’re true, and there’s no one but you that I can say them to?”

He never quite knew, when she took that tone, if he was most moved or offended by it. There were moments when she frightened him; when he would have given the world to believe either that she was five years older than she said, or else that she did not know the meaning of the words she used. At such moments it was always the vision of Rose Sellars which took possession of him, and he found himself breathlessly explaining this strange child to her, and feeling that what was so clear to him would become incomprehensible as soon as he tried to make it clear to others, and especially to Mrs. Sellars. “There’s nothing to be done about it,” he thought despairingly. Aloud he remarked, in an impatient tone: “You’re very foolish not to go to school.”

She made no reply, but simply said, with a return of her wistful look: “Perhaps if you were going to stay here you’d lend me some books.”

“But I’m not going to stay here; I’m off to-morrow morning,” he answered angrily, keeping his head turned away with an irritated sense that if he should meet her eyes he would see tears in them.

Her own anger had dropped — he knew it without looking at her, and he had the sense that she was standing near him, very small and pale. “Martin, if you’d only stay! There are so many things left undecided . . . Father and mother can’t make up their minds where to go next, and it’s always when they’ve got nothing particular to do that they quarrel. They can’t get anybody to go on the yacht with them — not till Cowes. And if they have to chuck the cruise father wants to go to Paris, and mother wants to go motoring in the hill-towns of Italy (where are they, do you know?) And if they get wrangling again what in the world is to become of us children?”

He turned back then, and put his hand on her arm. There was an old bench, as shaky as the table, under a sort of ragged sounding-board of oleanders. “Sit down, my dear.” He sat beside her, smiling a little, lighting a cigarette to prove his ease and impartiality. “You’re taking all this much too hard, you know. You’ve too much on your shoulders, and you’re over-tired: that’s all. I’ve been with your father and mother for two days now, and I see no signs of anything going wrong. The only trouble with them is that they’re too rich. That makes them fretful: it’s like teething. Every time your father hears he’s made another million it’s like cutting a new tooth. They hurt to bite on when one has so many. But he’ll find people soon to go off for a cruise with him, and then he’ll have to decide about your summer. Your people must see that this place is not bracing enough for Terry; and they’ll want him to settle down somewhere in the mountains, and get to work as soon as possible.”

The tone of his voice seemed to quiet her, though he suspected that at first she was too agitated to follow what he said. “But what sort of people?” she brought out at length, disconsolately.

“What sort of people?”

“To go on the yacht. That’s another thing. When mother is away from father, and I’m with her, it’s easier in some ways — except that then I fret about the other children. When Joyce and father are together they do all sorts of crazy things, just to be in opposition to each other. Take up with horrid people, I mean, people who drink and have rows. And then they get squabbling again, as they did when Buondelmonte sent father the bill for his Rolls–Royce. . .”


“Yes; but Joyce said we were never to talk about that — she forbade us all.”

“She was quite right.”

“Yes; only it’s true. And they do get into all sorts of rows and muddles about the people they pick up — ”

At this moment Boyne, hearing a shuffle on the gravel, looked around and saw the maid approaching with a card. The maid glanced doubtfully at the two, and finally handed the card to Boyne, as the person most likely to represent law and order in the effervescent party to which he seemed to belong. It was a very large and stiff piece of paste-board, bearing the name: Marchioness of Wrench, and underneath, in a sprawling untaught hand: “To see my daughter Zinnie Wheater,” the “my” being scratched out and “her” substituted for it. Boyne, after staring at this document perplexedly, passed it on to Judith, who sprang up with an astonished exclamation.

“Why, it must be Zinnia Lacrosse! Why, she’s married again! It’s true, then, what Blanca saw in the papers. . .” She looked inquiringly at Boyne. “Do you suppose she’s really here?”

“Of course I’m here!” cried a sharp gay voice from the doorway; and through the unkempt shrubbery an apparition sparkling with youth and paint and jewels swept toward them on a wave of perfume.

“Hullo, Judy — why, it’s YOU!” But the newcomer was not looking at Judith. She stood still and scrutinised Boyne with great eyes set like jewels in a raying-out of enamelled lashes. She had a perfectly oval face, a small exquisitely curved mouth, and an air of innocent corruption which gave Boyne a slightly squeamish feeling as she turned and flung her arms about Judy.

“Well, old Judy, I’m glad to see you again . . . Who’s your friend?” she added, darting a glance at Boyne through slanting lids. All her gestures had something smooth and automatic, and a little larger than life.

“He’s Mr. Boyne. He’s father’s friend too. This is Zinnia Lacrosse, Martin.”

“No, it isn’t, either! It’s the Marchioness of Wrench. Only I’m just called Lady Wrench, except on visiting-cards, and when they put me in the newspapers, or I talk to the servants. And of course you’ll call me Zinnia just the same, Judy. How d’ye do, Mr. Boyne?” murmured the star, with an accession of elegance and a languidly extended hand. But she had already mustered Boyne, and was looking over his shoulder as she addressed him. “What I’m after is Zinnie, you know,” she smiled. “Wrenny’s waiting in the gondola — Wrenny’s my husband — and I’ve promised to take her out and show her to him.”

She cast an ingratiating glance at Judith, but the latter, quietly facing her, seemed to Boyne to have grown suddenly tall and authoritative, as she did when she had to cope with a nursery mutiny.

“Now, Zinnia,” she began, in the shrill voice which always gave Boyne a sense of uneasiness, “you know perfectly well — ”

“Know what?”

“You know what the agreement is; and you know Scopy and I aren’t going to listen to anything — ”

“Fudge, child! What d’you suppose I’d want to break the agreement for? Not that I care such an awful lot for Cliffe’s old alimony, you know. It don’t hardly keep me in silk stockings. If I wanted to carry Zinnie off, that wouldn’t stop me half a second. But I only want to show Wrenny that I can have a baby if I choose. Men are so funny about such things; he doesn’t believe I’ve ever had one. And of course I can see he’s got to have an heir. Look here, Judy, ain’t I always dealt with you white? Let me see her right away, won’t you? I’ve got a lovely present for her here, and one for you too — a real beauty . . . Can’t you understand a mother’s feelings?”

Judy still kept her adamantine erectness. Her lips, colourless and pressed together, barely parted to reply to the film star, whose last advance she appeared not to have noticed.

“Of course you can see Zinnie. You needn’t get excited about that. Only you’ll see her here, with me and Mr. Boyne. All your husband has got to do is to get out of the gondola and come into the house.”

“If you’d been brought up like a lady you’d call him Lord Wrench, Judy.”

Judith burst out laughing. “Mercy! Then you’d better call me Miss Wheater. But if you want to see Zinnie you haven’t got any time to lose, because father’s going to send for the children in a minute or two, and take them all off on the yacht.”

“Oh, Judy — but he can’t prevent my seeing Zinnie!”

“Nobody wants to prevent you, if you’ll do what I say.”

The Marchioness of Wrench pondered this ultimatum for a moment, staring down at her highly polished oval nails. Then she said sullenly: “I’ll try; but I don’t believe he’ll get out of the gondola. He’s dead lazy. And we wanted to take Zinnie for a row.” Judith made no reply, and finally Lady Wrench moved back toward the vestibule door with a reluctant step.

“I’ll go and fetch Zinnie,” Judith announced to Boyne, advancing to the house by another path; but as she did so a small figure, bedizened and glass-beaded, hurled itself across the garden and into her arms.

“Judy! That was Zinnia, wasn’t it? I saw her from my window! Nanny said it wasn’t, but I knew it was. She hasn’t gone away without seeing her own little Zinnie, has she? I’ll never forgive you if she has. Did she bring a present for me? She always does. Blanca’s crazy to come down and see her clothes, but Scopy won’t let her. She’s locked her up.”

Judith gave one of her contemptuous shrugs. “Oh, Scopy needn’t have done that. It won’t hurt Blanca to see your mother. There, stop pinching me, Zinnie, and don’t worry. Your mother’s coming back. She’s only gone to get her husband to introduce him to you.”

“Her new husband? What’s his name? Nobody ever told me she had a new husband. ‘Cos they always say: ‘You’re too little to understand.’ Zif I wasn’t Zinnia’s own little daughter! Judy, hasn’t she got a present for me, don’t you think? If it’s nothing but choc’lates, course I’ll divvy with the others; but if it’s jewelry I needn’t, need I?” Zinnie’s ruddy curls spiralled upward and her face flamed with cupidity and eagerness. With a flash of her dimpled fists she snatched the new Merceria beads from her neck and thrust them into the pocket of her frock. “There’s no use her seeing I’ve had presents already — you don’t mind, Martin, do you?” she queried over her shoulder, addressing Boyne, who had given her the necklace that morning. He burst out laughing; but Judith, before he could intervene, caught hold of the delinquent and gave her a wrathful shake. “You nasty false ungrateful little viper you — ”

“Oo-oo-oo,” wailed Zinnie, hunching up her shoulders in a burst of sobs.

“There — now, Wrenny, you just look at that. I wish I had my lawyers here! That’s the way those Wheater people treat my child — ” Lady Wrench stood in the garden door and pointed with a denunciatory arm toward her weeping infant. Over her shoulder appeared the fair hair and puzzled eyes of a very tall young man with a sickly cast of countenance, a wide tremulous mouth and a bald forehead. “Oh, Lord, my dear,” he said.

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