The Children, by Edith Wharton


Lady Wrench had snatched up her daughter and stood, in an approved film attitude, pressing Zinnie’s damp cheek against her own, while the child’s orange-coloured curls mixed with the red gold of hers. “What’s that nasty beast been doing to momma’s darling?” she demanded, glaring over Zinnie’s head at Judith. “Whipping you for wanting to see your own mother, I suppose? You just tell momma what it was and she’ll. . .”

But Zinnie’s face had cleared, and she was obviously far too much absorbed in her mother’s appearance to heed the unimportant questions which were being put to her. She slid her fat fingers through the pearls flowing in cataracts down Lady Wrench’s bosom. “Oh, Zinnia, are they real? Blanca says they can’t be — she knows they can’t, ‘cos they’re twice as big as Joyce’s.”

“Blanca? Why, is Blanca here? Where is she?”

“Scopy’s got her locked up, so’s she can’t come down and stare at you, but she found Martin’s op’ra glasses in his room’n she’s looking at you through them’n she says they’re so pow’ful she can count the pearls, and can’t she come down, please, Zinnia, ‘cos she wants to see f’you’ve got the same Callot model’s Joyce’s jess ordered, ‘cos it’ll make Joyce wild’n she’ll want to get another one instead as quick as she can. Please, Zinnia!”

Lady Wrench’s brow had cleared as quickly as her daughter’s. She burst out laughing and pressed her lips to Zinnie’s cheek. “There, Wrenny, what d’you think of that, I’d like to know? Isn’t she my really truly little girl?”

Lord Wrench had shambled slowly forward in her wake. He stood, lax~jointed, irresolute, in his light loose flannels, a faded Homburg hat tilted back from his perplexed brow, gazing down on the group from the immense height to which his long limbs and endless neck uplifted him.

“Yes, I’ll take my oath she’s that,” he replied, in a voice which seemed to come from somewhere even higher than his hat; and he gave a cackle that rose and overreached his voice, and went tinkling away to the housetops.

His wife’s laugh joined and outsoared his, and she dropped down on the bench, still hugging Zinnie. “Judy thought we wanted to STEAL her, Wrenny — think of that! Oh, I forgot you didn’t know each other — Lord Wrench, Judy Wheater. And this is Mr. Boyne, a friend of Cliffe’s — aren’t you a friend of Cliffe’s, Mr. Boyne? My present husband, the Marqu — no; that’s wrong, I know — just my husband. But where’s Blanca, Judy? Do let her come down, and Terry too; that’s a darling! After all, I’m their step-mother, ain’t I? Or I was, anyhow . . . Is Blanca as much of a beauty as ever, Mr. Boyne? If that girl had more pep I wouldn’t wonder but what I could do something with her on the screen. Judy, now, would never be any good to us — would she, Wrenny? Too much of a lady, I always used to tell her. . .”

“Shut up: here she is,” Lord Wrench interpolated. As he spoke Judith reappeared with her younger sister. Blanca’s eyes were stretched to their widest at the sight of her former step-mother, though her erect spine and measured tread betrayed nothing of her eagerness to appraise Lady Wrench’s dress and jewels. Behind them walked Miss Scope, helmeted as if for a fray, her hands mailed in gray cotton, and clutching her umbrella like a spear.

“Well, Blanca! How are you? How you’ve grown! And what a looker you’re going to be! Only you’re so fearfully grand — always was, wasn’t she, Judy? You’re a lady yourself, but you ain’t SUCH a lady. Well, Blanca, shake hands, and let me introduce you to my new husband. Wrenny, this is Blanca, who used to come and stay, with Terry and Judy, when Cliffe and me were married. Where’s Terry, Blanca? Why didn’t he come down too? I’d love to see him.”

“Terry’s with his tutor at present,” said Blanca distantly, though her eyes never for a second detached themselves from Lady Wrench’s luminous presence.

“But he said he wouldn’t have come down even if he hadn’t of been,” chimed in Zinnie, peering up maliciously into her mother’s face. “He says he isn’t ‘quisitive like Blanca, and he can’t be bothered every time somebody comes round to see the steps.”

Lord Wrench, at this, joined Boyne in a fresh burst of laughter, but his bride looked distinctly displeased. “Well, I see Terry’s tutor hasn’t taught him manners anyhow,” she snapped, while Miss Scope admonished her youngest charge: “IN-quisitive, Zinnie; you’re really old enough to begin to speak correctly.”

“No, I’m not, ‘less Bun and Beechy do too,” Zinnie retorted.

“Beatrice and Astorre are foreigners,” Miss Scope rejoined severely.

“Well, so are you, you old flamingo! You’re not a real true Merrican like us!”

“Zinnie,” cried Blanca, intervening in her brother’s behalf in her grandest manner, “Terry never said any such thing”; but Zinnie, secure in her mother’s embrace, laughed scorn at her rebukers, until Judith remarked: “I’m very sorry, but children who are rude are not to be taken on the yacht today. Father particularly told me to tell you so. Zinnie, if you don’t apologise at once to Miss Scope I’m afraid you’ll have to stay behind alone with Nanny.”

“No, she won’t, either, my Zinnie pet won’t! She’ll go out in the gond’la with her own momma and her new father,” Lady Wrench triumphantly declared. But Zinnie’s expressive countenance had undergone a sudden change. She detached herself from the maternal embrace, and sliding to the ground slipped across to Miss Scope and endearingly caught her by a gray cotton hand. “Scopy, I’m not a really naughty Zinnie, say I’m not — ‘cos I don’t want to go out in a bally old gond’la, I want to go’n father’s steam-yacht, I do!”

Fresh squeals of approval from Lord Wrench greeted this hasty retractation. “Jove — she’s jolly well right, the kid is! No doubt about her being yours, Zinnia,” he declared; whereat the lady rejoined, with an effort at lightness: “Zif I couldn’t have a yacht of my own any day I like that’d steam all round that old hulk of Cliffe’s! And I will too — you’ll see,” she added, sweeping a circular glance about the company.

“Righto. Come along now, and we’ll pick one out,” her husband suggested with amiable irony.

“Well, maybe I will,” she menaced, rising to her feet with the air of throwing back an ermine train. But Blanca had advanced and was lifting shy eyes to hers. “Your dress is so perfectly lovely, Zinnia; I think it’s the prettiest one I ever saw you in. Isn’t it from that Russian place mother’s always talking about, where it’s so hard to get them to take new customers?”

The star cast a mollified smile upon her. “You bright child, you! Well, yes; it is. But even if your mother could persuade them to take her on she wouldn’t be able to get this model, because the Grand Duke Anastase designed it expressly for me, and I’ve got a signed paper saying it’s the only one of the kind they’ll ever make. See the way it’s cut across the shoulders?”

Blanca contemplated this detail with ecstatic appreciation, and Lady Wrench, gathering up her sable scarf, glanced victoriously about her. “I guess anybody that wants to can buy a steam-yacht; but you can count on one hand with two fingers missing the women that Anastase’ll take the trouble to design a dress for.”

“Oh, I say, come on, old girl,” her husband protested, shifting his weight wearily from one long leg to another; and Lady Wrench turned to follow him.

“Well, goodbye, Zinnie child. Next time I’ll call for you on my two thousand ton oil-burner. Oh, look here — seen my bag, Wrenny? I believe I brought some caramels for the child — ” She turned back, and began to fumble in a bejewelled bag, while the two little girls’ faces fell at the mention of caramels. But presently a gold chain strung with small but lustrous pearls emerged from a tangle of cigarettes and bank-notes. “Here, Zinnie, you put that on, and ask Blanca to look at the pearls under the microscope, and then tell you if they’re false, like your momma’s.”

Blanca paled at the allusion. “Oh, Zinnia, I never said yours were false! Is that what that little brute told you? I only said, I couldn’t be sure they weren’t, at that distance — ”

Lady Wrench laughed imperturbably. “Well, I should think you’d have been sure they WERE, being so accustomed to your mother’s. But movie queens don’t have to wear fake pearls, my pet, ‘cos if the real ones get stolen they can always replace ’em. You tell that to Mrs. Cliffe Wheater number three. And you needn’t look so scared — I bear no malice.” She drew a small packet from the bag. “See, here’s a ring I brought you: I guess that’ll bear testing too,” she added, flinging the little box into Blanca’s hand.

Blanca, white with excitement, snapped open the lid, which revealed to her swift appraising eye a little ruby set in brilliants. She drew it forth with a rapturous “Oh, Zinnia,” and slipped it onto her hand, hastily thrusting the box into a fold of her jumper.

“When I give presents I don’t go to the ten-cent store for them,” remarked Lady Wrench, with a farewell wave of her hand. “So long, everybody! Shouldn’t wonder if we met again soon by the sad sea waves. Wrenny and I are honeymooning out at the Lido, and maybe you’ll all be over for the bathing. It’s getting to be as gay as it is in August. All the smart people are snapping up the bathing tents. The Duke of Mendip’s got the one next to ours. He’s Wrenny’s best friend, you know. By-bye, Judy. Mr. Boyne, hope you’ll dine with us some night at the Lido Palace to meet the Duke. Ask for the Marchioness of Wrench — you’ll remember?”

She vanished in a dazzle of pearls and laughter, leaving Blanca and Zinnie in absorbed contemplation of their trinkets till Miss Scope marshalled them into the house to prepare for the arrival of the “Fancy Girl” ‘s launch.

After the children were gone, Judy lingered for a moment in the garden with Boyne. Her features, so tense and grown-up looking during the film star’s visit, had melted into the small round face of a pouting child.

“Well — that’s over,” Boyne said, flinging away his cigarette as though the gesture symbolised the act of casting out the Wrenches.

“Yes,” she assented, in a tone of indifference. “Zinnia doesn’t really matter, you know,” she added, as if noticing his surprise. “She screams a lot; but she doesn’t mean anything by it.”

“Well, I should think you’d be glad she didn’t, for whatever she meant would be insufferable.”

Judith raised her eyebrows with a faint smile. “We’re more used to fusses than you are. When there are seven children, and a lot of parents, there’s always somebody fighting about something. But Zinnia’s nothing like as bad as she looks.” She paused a moment, and then, irrepressibly, as if to rid her heart of an intolerable weight: “But Blanca got away with my present. Did you see that? I knew she would! That’s what she came down for — to wangle it out of Zinnia. Pretending she thought that old Callot model was one of Anastase’s! There’s nothing mean enough for Blanca!” Her eyes had filled with large childish tears, and one of them rolled down her cheek before she had time to throw back her head and add proudly: “Not that I care a straw, of course. I’m too grown up to mind about such rubbish. But I know Blanca must have noticed my ‘nitials on the box. Didn’t you see how quick she was about hiding it?”

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