The Children - Edith Wharton - ebook
Kategoria: Obyczajowe i romanse Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1928

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Edith Wharton

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About
Part 1
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

About Wharton:

Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937) was an American novelist, short story writer, and designer.

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Chapter 1

 

As the big liner hung over the tugs swarming about her in the bay of Algiers, Martin Boyne looked down from the promenade deck on the troop of first-class passengers struggling up the gangway, their faces all unconsciously lifted to his inspection.

"Not a soul I shall want to speak to—as usual!"

Some men's luck in travelling was inconceivable. They had only to get into a train or on board a boat to run across an old friend; or, what was more exciting, make a new one. They were always finding themselves in the same compartment, or in the same cabin, with some wandering celebrity, with the owner of a famous house, of a noted collection, or of an odd and amusing personality—the latter case being, of course, the rarest as it was the most rewarding.

There was, for instance, Martin Boyne's own Great-Uncle Edward. Uncle Edward's travel-adventures were famed in the family. At home in America, amid the solemn upholstery of his Boston house, Uncle Edward was the model of complacent dulness; yet whenever he got on board a steamer, or into a train (or a diligence, in his distant youth), he was singled out by fate as the hero of some delightful encounter. It would be Rachel during her ill-starred tour of the States; Ruskin on the lake of Geneva; the Dean of Canterbury as Uncle Edward, with all the appropriate emotions, was gazing on the tomb of the Black Prince; or the Duke of Devonshire of his day, as Uncle Edward put a courteous (but probably pointless) question to the housekeeper showing him over Chatsworth. And instantly he would receive a proscenium box from Rachel for her legendary first night in Boston, or be entreated by Ruskin to join him for a month in Venice; or the Dean would invite him to stay at the Deanery, the Duke at Chatsworth; and the net result of these experiences would be that Uncle Edward, if questioned, would reply with his sweet frosty smile: "Yes, Rachel had talent but no beauty"; or: "No one could be more simple and friendly than the Duke"; or: "Ruskin really had all the appearances of a gentleman." Such were the impressions produced on Uncle Edward by his unparalleled success in the great social scenes through which, for a period of over sixty years, he moved with benignant blindness.

Far different was the case of his great-nephew. No tremor of thought or emotion would, in similar situations, have escaped Martin Boyne: he would have burst all the grapes against his palate. But though he was given to travel, and though he had travelled much, and his profession as a civil engineer had taken him to interesting and out-of-the-way parts of the world, and though he was always on the alert for agreeable encounters, it was never at such times that they came to him. He would have loved adventure, but adventure worthy of the name perpetually eluded him; and when it has eluded a man till he is over forty it is not likely to seek him out later.

"I believe it's something about the shape of my nose," he had said to himself that very morning as he shaved in his spacious cabin on the upper deck of the big Mediterranean cruising-steamer.

The nose in question was undoubtedly not adventurous in shape; it did not thrust itself far forward into other people's affairs; and the eyes above, wide apart, deep-set, and narrowed for closer observation, were of a guarded twilight gray which gave the nose no encouragement whatever.

"Nobody worth bothering about—as usual," he grumbled. For the day was so lovely, the harbour of Algiers so glittering with light and heat, his own mood so full of holiday enterprise—it was his first vacation after a good many months on a hard exhausting job—that he could hardly believe he really looked to the rest of the world as he had seen himself that morning: a critical cautious man of forty-six, whom nobody could possibly associate with the romantic or the unexpected.

"Usual luck; best I can hope for is to keep my cabin to myself for the rest of the cruise," he pondered philosophically, hugging himself at the prospect of another fortnight of sea-solitude before—well, before the fateful uncertainty of what awaited him just beyond the voyage…

"And I haven't even seen her for five years!" he reflected, with that feeling of hollowness about the belt which prolonged apprehension gives.

Passengers were still climbing the ship's side, and he leaned and looked again, this time with contracted eyes and a slight widening of his cautious nostrils. His attention had been drawn to a young woman—a slip of a girl, rather—with a round flushed baby on her shoulder, a baby much too heavy for her slender frame, but on whose sleepy countenance her own was bent with a gaze of solicitude which wrung a murmur of admiration from Boyne.

"Jove—if a fellow was younger!"

Men of forty-six do not gasp as frequently at the sight of a charming face as they did at twenty; but when the sight strikes them it hits harder. Boyne had not been looking for pretty faces but for interesting ones, and it rather disturbed him to be put off his quest by anything so out of his present way as excessive youth and a rather pathetic grace.

"Lord—the child's ever so much too heavy for her. Must have been married out of the nursery: damned cad, not to—"

The young face mounting toward him continued to bend over the baby, the girl's frail shoulders to droop increasingly under their burden, as the congestion ahead of her forced the young lady to maintain her slanting position halfway up the liner's flank.

A nurse in correct bonnet and veil touched her shoulder, as if offering to relieve her; but she only tightened her arm about the child. Whereupon the nurse, bending, lifted in her own arms a carrot-headed little girl of four or five in a gaudy gipsy-like frock.

"What—another? Why, it's barbarous; it ought to be against the law! The poor little thing—"

Here Boyne's attention was distracted by the passage of a deck-steward asking where he wished his chair placed. He turned to attend to this matter, and saw, on the chair next to his, a tag bearing the name: "Mrs. Cliffe Wheater."

Cliffe Wheater—Cliffe Wheater! What an absurd name … and somehow he remembered to have smiled over it in the same way years before… But, good Lord, of course! How long he must have lived out of the world, on his engineering jobs, first in the Argentine, then in Australia, and since the war in Egypt—how out of step he must have become with the old social dance of New York, not to situate Cliffe Wheater at once as the big red-faced Chicagoan who was at Harvard with him, and who had since become one of the showiest of New York millionaires. Cliffe Wheater, of course—the kind of fellow who was spoken of, respectfully, as having "interests" everywhere: Boyne recalled having run across Wheater "interests" even in the Argentine. But the man himself, at any rate since his marriage, was reputed to be mainly interested in Ritz Hotels and powerful motorcars. Hadn't he a steam-yacht too? He had a wife, at any rate—it was all coming back to Boyne: he had married, it must be sixteen or seventeen years ago, that good-looking Mervin girl, of New York—Joyce Mervin—whom Boyne himself had danced and flirted with through a remote winter not long after Harvard. Joyce Mervin: she had written to him to announce her engagement, had enclosed a little snap-shot of herself with "Goodbye, Martin," scrawled across it. Had she rather fancied Boyne—Boyne wondered? He had been too poor to try to find out… And now he and she were going to be deck-neighbours for a fortnight on the magic seas between Algiers and Venice! He remembered the face he had contemplated that morning in his shaving-glass, and thought: "Very likely she hasn't changed a bit; smart women last so wonderfully; but she won't know me." The idea was half depressing and half reassuring. After all, it would enable him to take his observations—and to have his deck-chair moved, should the result be disappointing.

The ship had shaken her insect-like flock of tugs and sailing-boats off her quivering flanks; and now the great blue level spread before her as she headed away toward the morning. Boyne got a book, pulled his hat over his nose, and stretched out in his deck-chair, awaiting Mrs. Wheater…

 

"This will do—yes, I think this will do," said a fluty immature voice, a girl's voice, at his elbow. Boyne tilted his head back, and saw, a few steps off, the slim girl who had carried the heavy baby up the gangway.

The girl paused, glanced along the line of seats in his direction, nodded to a deck-steward, and disappeared into the doorway of a "luxe" suite farther forward. In the moment of her pause Boyne caught a small pale face with anxiously wrinkled brows above brown eyes of tragic width, and round red lips which, at the least provocation, might bubble with healthy laughter. It did not occur to him now to ask if the face were pretty or not—there were too many things going on in it for that.

As she entered her cabin he heard her say, in her firm quick voice, to some one within: "Nanny, has Chip had his Benger? Who's got the cabin with Terry?"

"What a mother!" Boyne thought, still wondering if it were not much too soon for that maternal frown to have shadowed her young forehead.

"Beg pardon, sir—there's a new passenger booked for your cabin." The steward was passing with a couple of good-looking suit-cases and a bundle of rugs.

"Oh, damn—well, it had to happen!" Boyne, with a groan, stood up and followed the steward. "Who is it, do you know?"

"Couldn't say, sir. Wheater—Wheater's the name."

Well, at last a coincidence! Mrs. Cliffe Wheater's chair was next to his own, and his old Harvard class-mate was to share his cabin with him. Boyne, if not wholly pleased, was at least faintly excited and interested by this unexpected combination of circumstances.

He turned, and saw a little boy standing in the door of the cabin, mustering him with a dispassionate eye.

"All right—this will do," said the boy quietly. He spoke in a slightly high-pitched voice, neither querulous nor effeminate, but simply thin and a little tired, like his slender person. Boyne guessed him to be about eleven years old, and too tall and reasonable for his age—another evidence of the physical frailty betrayed by his voice. He was neatly dressed in English school-boy clothes, but he did not look English, he looked cosmopolitan: as if he had been sharpened and worn down by contact with too many different civilizations—or perhaps merely with too many different hotels.

He continued to examine Boyne, critically but amicably; then he remarked: "I'm in here, you know."

"You are? I thought it was to be your father!"

"Oh, did you? That's funny. Do you know my father?"

"I used to. In fact, I think we were at Harvard together."

Young master Wheater looked but faintly interested. "Would you mind telling me your name?" he asked, as if acquitting himself of a recognized social duty.

"My name's Boyne: Martin Boyne. But it's so long since your father and I met that he wouldn't have been likely to speak of me."

Mr. Wheater's son reflected. "Well, I shouldn't have been likely to be there if he did. We're not so awfully much with father," he added, with a seeming desire for accuracy.

A little girl of his own age and size, but whose pale fairness had a warmer glow, had advanced a step or two into the cabin, and now slipped an arm through his.

"I've been hunting for you everywhere," she said. "Judith sent me."

"Well, here's where I am: with this gentleman."

The little girl lifted her deeply fringed lids and bent on Boyne the full gaze of two large and accomplished gray eyes. Then she pursed up her poppy-red lips and looked at her brother. "For a whole fortnight—Terry, can you bear it?"

The boy flushed and pulled away his arm. "Shut up, you ass!" he admonished her.

"Do let me ask Judith to tip the steward—"

He swung about on her angrily. "Will you shut up when I tell you to? This gentleman's a friend of father's."

"Oh—" the little girl murmured; and then added, after another fringed flash at Boyne: "He doesn't look it."

"Blanca—will you please get out of here?"

She wavered, her bright lips trembled, and she turned in confusion and ran down the deck. "She doesn't know anything—she's only my twin," said Terry Wheater apologetically.

He completed his scrutiny of the cabin, looked a little wistfully at Boyne, and then turned and sauntered away after the delinquent.

 

Boyne returned to the deck and his book; but though the latter interested him, it did not prevent his keeping watch, out of the tail of his eye, on the empty chair which bore Mrs. Wheater's name. His curiosity to see her had grown immensely since his encounter with her son and daughter—in the latter of whom he discovered, as the past grew clearer to him, a likeness to her mother at once close and remote. Joyce Mervin—yes, she had had those same poppy-red lips in a face of translucent pallor, and that slow skilful way of manouvring her big eyes; but her daughter seemed made of a finer frailer stuff, as if a good deal of Mrs. Wheater's substance had been left out of her, and a drop of some rarer essence added. "Perhaps it's because the child is only half a person—there was always too much of her mother," Boyne thought, remembering Joyce Mervin as being rather aimlessly abundant. "In such cases, it's probably enough to be a twin," he decided.

But how puzzling it all was! Terry was much less like Cliffe Wheater than his twin was like their mother. There too—even more so in the boy's case—quality seemed to have replaced quantity. Boyne felt, he hardly knew why, that something obvious and almost vulgar might lurk under Blanca's fastidiousness; but her brother could never be anything but distinguished. What a pity such a charming lad should look so ill!

Suddenly, from the forward suite, the young lady with the baby emerged. She had her sleepy cherub by the hand and was guiding him with motherly care along the deck. She sank into the chair next to Boyne's, pulled the baby up on her knee, and signalled to a steward to draw a rug over her feet. Then she leaned back with a sigh of satisfaction.

"This is something like, eh, Chip?" she said, in her gay fluty voice.

Chip laughed a genial well-fed laugh and fingered the brim of her hat appreciatively. It was evident that the two had the very highest opinion of each other.


Chapter 2

 

It was none of Boyne's business to tell his new neighbour that the chair she had chosen was Mrs. Cliffe Wheater's; the less so as she might (he decided on closer inspection) turn out to be a governess or other dependent of that lady's. But no (after another look); she was too young for the part, even if she had looked or acted it—and she didn't. Her tone in addressing her invisible companions was that of command, not subservience: they were the nurses and governesses, not she. Probably she had taken Mrs. Wheater's chair because it was one of the few empty ones left, and was well aware that she might presently be asked to evacuate it. That was just what Boyne would have liked to spare her; he didn't see Joyce Wheater—the Joyce he had known—yielding her seat without a battle.

"I beg your pardon; but in case somebody should claim this chair, I might find another for you before the whole front row is taken up."

The phrase sounded long and clumsy, but it was out before he had time to polish it. He had to hear her voice again, and also to get her to turn her eyes his way. She did so now, with perfect composure. Evidently she was not surprised at his addressing her, but only at the fact he imparted.

"Isn't this my chair?" She reached for the label and examined it. "Yes; I thought it was."

"Oh, I'm sorry—"

"That's all right. They are filling up, aren't they?"

Her brown eyes, under deep lashes like Blanca's, rested on him in polite acknowledgment of his good will; but he was too bewildered to see anything but a starry blur.

Mrs. Cliffe Wheater, then—this child? Well, after all, why not? His Mrs. Cliffe Wheater she obviously could not be; but in these days of transient partnerships there was no reason for expecting it. The Wheaters he knew must have been married nearly twenty years ago; and Cliffe Wheater, in the interval, had made money enough to treat himself to half-a-dozen divorces and remarriages, with all the attendant outlay. "No more to him than doing over a new house—good deal less than running a steam-yacht," Boyne half enviously reflected.

Yes; his neighbour was obviously a later—was the latest—Mrs. Wheater; probably two or three removes from poor Joyce. Though why he should think of her as poor Joyce, when in all probability she had moved off across the matrimonial chess-board at the same rate of progression as her first husband… Well, at any rate, if this was a new Mrs. Cliffe Wheater, Boyne might insinuate himself into her field of vision as an old friend of her husband's; a sufficient plea, he argued, between passengers on a pleasure-cruise. Only, remembering Terry's cool reception of his father's name, he hesitated. These modern matrimonial tangles were full of peril to the absentee…

The question was answered by the appearance of Blanca, who came dancing toward them like a butterfly waltzing over a bed of thyme.

As she approached, the young lady at Boyne's side said severely: "Child! Why haven't you got on your coat? Go and ask Scopy for it at once. The wind is cold."

Blanca leaned against her with a caressing gesture.

"All right." But instead of moving she slanted her gaze again toward Boyne. "He says he used to know father," she imparted.

The young lady turned her head also, and Boyne felt the mysterious weight of her eyes upon his face. "How funny!" was her simple comment. It seemed to strike all the group with equal wonder that Martin Boyne should be on speaking terms with its chief. "Not smart enough, I suppose; no Bond Street suit-cases," he grumbled to himself, remembering the freight of costly pigskin which had followed his neighbour up the gangway.

The latter's attention had already turned from him. "Blanca! I tell you to go and put on your coat. And see that Terry has his… Don't lean on me like that, child. Can't you see that Chip's asleep?"

She spoke a little wearily, almost irritably, Boyne thought; but as she bent over the child her little profile softened, melting into something puerile and appealing. "Hush!" she signalled; and Blanca, obedient, tiptoed off.

Boyne, at this, invoking Uncle Edward, patron saint of the adventurous, risked a playful comment. "You've got them wonderfully well in hand."

She smiled. "Oh, they're very good children; all except … Zinnie—!" she screamed; and Boyne, following her horrified glance, saw a stark naked little figure with a shock of orange-coloured hair and a string of amber beads capering toward them to the wonder and delight of the double row of spectators in the deck-chairs.

In a flash the young lady was on her feet, and Boyne was pressing a soap-scented bundle to his breast. "Hold Chip!" she commanded. "Oh, that little red devil!" She sped down the deck and catching up the orange-headed child gave her a violent shaking. "You'll be catching cold next, you wretch," she admonished her, as if this were the head and front of the child's offending; and having pushed the culprit into the arms of a pursuing nurse she regained her seat.

"How nicely you've held him! He's still asleep." She received back the hot baby, all relaxed and slumber-scented, and the eyes she turned on Boyne were now full of a friendly intimacy—and much younger, he thought, than Blanca's. "Did you ever mind a baby before?" she asked.

"Yes; but not such a good one—nor so heavy."

She shone with pride. "Isn't he an armful? He's nearly two pounds heavier than most children of two. When Beechy was his age she weighed only … "

"Beechy?" Boyne interrupted. "I thought you called her Zinnie."

"Zinnie? Oh, but she's not the same as Beechy." She laughed with something of a child's amusement at the ignorance of the grown up. "Beechy's a step—but you haven't seen the other steps," she reminded herself. "I wonder where on earth they are?"

"The steps?" he echoed, in deeper bewilderment.

"Bun and Beechy. They only half belong to us, and so does Zinnie. They're all three step-children. But we're just as devoted to them as if they were altogether ours; except when Bun is naughty. Bun is my only naughty child!—oh, do hold Chip again!" she exclaimed, and once more Boyne became the repository of that heap of rosy slumber.

"There's Bun now—and I never trust him when he's by himself! I can't," she wailed, as a sturdy little brown boy in a scarlet jumper came crawling down the deck on all fours, emitting strange animal barks and crowings. "He's going to do his menagerie-tricks. Oh, dear—And he can't, with the ship rolling like this. His mother was a lion-tamer. But he'll hurt himself, I know he will—oh, Scopy! Yes; do take him… "

A gaunt narrow-chested lady with a face hewn into lines of kindly resolution, and a faded straw hat cocked sideways on her blown gray hair, had appeared in Bun's wake and set him on his feet as firmly as the rolling deck permitted. His face, dusky with wrath, squared itself for a howl; but at that moment a very small brown girl, with immense agate-coloured eyes and a thicket of dark curls, dashed out of a state-room, and hurried to him with outstretched arms. Instantly the offender's wrath turned to weeping, and the two little creatures fell dramatically on each other's bosoms, while the governess, unmoved by this display of feeling, steered them sternly back to their quarters.

The young lady at Boyne's side leaned back with a laugh. "Isn't Scopy funny? She can't bear it when Bun falls on Beechy's neck like that. She calls it 'so foreign and unmanly.' And of course they are foreign … they're Italian … but I'm too thankful that Beechy has such an influence over Bun. If it weren't for her we should have our hands full with him." She hugged the sleep-drunk Chip to her bosom.

"You must have your hands rather full as it is—I mean even without Bun?" Boyne ventured, consumed by the desire to see farther into this nursery tangle, and follow its various threads back to the young creature at his side. "Travelling with them all like this—and without Wheater to help you out," he pushed on.

At this she shrugged a little. "Oh, he's not much at helping out; he loathes to travel with us," she said, slightingly yet not unkindly. Boyne was beginning to think that her detached view of human weaknesses was perhaps the most striking thing about her.

"But Terry helps—most wonderfully," she added, a smile of maternal tenderness lighting her small changeful face, in which so many things were always happening that Boyne had not yet had time to decide if it were pretty or just curiously loveable.

"My cabin-mate," Boyne smiled. "Yes; a big boy like that must be a comfort." He dared not say "a big son like that," for he could not believe that the girl at his side could be the mother of a tall lad of Terry's age. Yet she had distinctly not classed him among the "steps"! In his perplexity he ventured: "A chap of that age is always so proud of his mother."

She seemed to think that this needed consideration. "Well, I don't know that Terry's proud of Joyce, exactly—but he admires her, of course; we all do. She's so awfully handsome. I don't believe even Blanca is going to come up to her."

Joyce! Boyne caught at the familiar name as at a lifebelt. Evidently his old friend Joyce Mervin was still situated somewhere within the Wheater labyrinth. But where? And who was this young thing who gave her her Christian name so easily? Everything that seemed at first to enlighten him ended only by deepening his perplexity.

"Do you know that Joyce, as you call her, used to be a great friend of mine years ago?" There could be no harm, at least, in risking that.

"Oh, was she? How jolly! She says she looked exactly like Blanca then. Did she? Of course she's a little thick now—but not nearly as much so as she imagines. She does so fret about it. It's her great unhappiness."

Boyne laughed. "You mean she hasn't any worse ones?"

"Oh, no. Not now. They've been on a new honeymoon since Chip … haven't they, old Chippo?"

"They…  ?" On a new honeymoon? Since Chip? Then the sleeping cherub was not the property of the girl at his side, but of Joyce Mervin … Joyce Wheater … Joyce Somebody … Oh, how he longed to ask: "Joyce who?"

This last step forward seemed really to have landed him in the heart of the labyrinth; the difficulty now was to find his way out again.

But the young lady's confidences seemed to invite his own. Or was it just that she had the new easy way with people? Very likely. Still, an old fogey out of the wilderness might be excused for taking it as something more—a sign of sympathy, almost an invitation to meet her fresh allusions with fresh questions.

"Yes; we were friends—really great friends for a winter … "

("That's long, for Joyce," said his neighbour parenthetically.)

"… such good friends that I should like to tell you my name: Martin Boyne—and to ask what your—"

"Oh—oh!!!" She shrilled it out so precipitately that it cut his last word in two. At first he could not guess the cause of this new disturbance; but in a moment he discovered the young Bun walking with bare feet and a cat-like agility along the backs of the outer row of deck-chairs, while their occupants ducked out of his way and laughed their approval of his skill.

"She was also a tight-rope dancer—his mother was," the girl flung back, leaping in Bun's direction. Having caught and cuffed him, and cuffed him again in answer to his furious squeals, she dragged him away to the firm dishevelled lady who had previously dealt with him. When she returned to her seat, pale and a little breathless, she looked as if her domestic cares sometimes weighed on her too heavily. She dropped down by Boyne with a sigh. "If ever you marry," she enjoined him ("And how does she know I never have?" he wondered), "don't you have any children—that's all I say! Do you wonder mother and father don't care to travel with the lot of us?"


Chapter 3

 

The luncheon-signal crashed in on this interrogation, and Boyne was left alone to make what he could of it. At the first sound of the gong his neighbour was on her feet, hardly heeding his suggestion that, if she had not already chosen her seat, they might meet at a table for two in the restaurant.

"Thanks a lot; but of course I lunch with my children." And he remembered with regret that their ocean-palace had a separate dining-room for youthful passengers.

"Dash it—I should have liked a few minutes' quiet talk with her."

Instead, he drifted back to his usual place at a table of waifs and strays like himself: an earnest lady in spectacles who was "preparing" Sicily; an elderly man who announced every morning: "I always say the bacon on these big liners is better than anything I can get at home"; and a pale clergyman whose parishioners had sent him on a holiday tour, and whose only definite idea was to refuse to visit catacombs. "I do so want to lead a pagan life just for once," he confided to Boyne, with an ascetic smile which showed, between racking coughs, his worn teeth and anamic gums.

Luncheon over, Boyne hurried back to his corner, hoping to find the seat at his side already occupied; but it was empty, and empty it remained as the long blue day curved down imperceptibly toward evening.

"Father and mother don't care to travel with the lot of us," the girl had said.

"Father and mother"? That, as far as Boyne could make out, could mean only the Cliffe Wheaters, his old original Cliffe Wheaters, in their before-the-letter state, as it were. In that case the thin eager girl at his side would be their daughter, their eldest daughter, born probably soon after a marriage which, some thirteen or fourteen years later, had produced the sturdy and abundant Chip.

"Very unmodern, all that." It gave Boyne a more encouraging view of the conjugal state than he had lately held, and made him look forward with a lighter mind to meeting the lady who awaited him in the Dolomites—the lady he had not seen for five years. It must certainly be pleasant to be the parent of a large reliable baby like Chip…

But no sooner did he imagine that he had solved the puzzle of the Cliffe Wheaters than the image of the enigmatic trio, Zinnie, Bun and Beechy, disarranged his neat equation. The "steps"—who on earth were the "steps," and how and where did they fit into the family group which seemed, with Judith (hadn't they called her that?) at one end, and Chip at the other, to form its own unbroken circle? Miss Wheater, he remembered, had tossed him a few details about the two brown children, Bun and Beechy. "They're foreigners… Italians… " But if so, they belonged neither to Cliffe Wheater nor to his wife; certainly not to his wife, since Judith had added, in speaking of Bun: "His mother was a lion-tamer … " not as if using the term metaphorically, but as stating a plain social fact.

As for Zinnie, the little red devil, she remained wholly unaccounted for, and there was nothing in her clever impudent face, with its turned-up nose and freckled skin under the shock of orange hair, to suggest any blood-relationship to the small Italians. Zinnie appeared to be sharply and completely American—as American as Beechy and Bun were Italian, and much more so than the three elder Wheaters, who were all so rubbed down by cosmopolitan contacts. The "steps," in fact, had the definiteness of what the botanists call species, whereas Judith, Blanca and Terry were like exquisite garden hybrids. The harder Boyne stared into the problem the more obscure it became.

Even the least eventful sea-voyages lend themselves to favourable propinquities, and in the course of the afternoon the gray-haired lady whom the young Wheaters addressed as "Scopy" reappeared on deck, this time alone, and seemingly in quest of a seat. Boyne instantly pointed out the one next to his, and the lady, saying with an austere smile: "I believe ours are on the other side, but I can take this while Judith's resting," settled herself at his side in an attitude of angular precision.

As she did so she gave him a look of shy benevolence, and added: "I understand from Judith that you're a friend of her people."

Boyne eagerly acquiesced, and she went on to say what a comfort it was, when they were on one of these long treks with the children, to come across anybody who was a friend of their parents, and could be appealed to in an emergency. "Not that there's any particular reason at present; but it's a good deal of a responsibility for Judith to transport the whole party from Biskra to Venice, and we're always rather troubled about Terry. Even after four months at Biskra he hasn't picked up as we'd hoped… Always a little temperature in the evenings… " She sighed, and turned away her sturdy weather-beaten face, which looked like a cliff on whose top a hermit had built a precarious refuge—her hat.

"You're anxious about Terry? He does look a little drawn." Boyne hoped that if he adopted an easy old-friend tone she might be lured on from one confidence to another.

"Anxious? I don't like the word; and Judith wouldn't admit it. But we always have our eye on him, the dear boy—and our minds." She sighed again, and he saw that she had averted her head because her eyes were filling.

"It is, as you say, a tremendous responsibility for any one as young as Miss Wheater." He hesitated, and then added: "I can very nearly guess her age, for I used to see a good deal of both her parents before they were married."

It was a consolation to his self-esteem that the lady called "Scopy" took this with less flippancy than her young charges. It seemed distinctly interesting to her, and even reassuring, that Boyne should have been a friend of the Cliffe Wheaters at any stage in their career. "I only wish you'd gone on seeing them since," she said, with another of her sighs.

"Oh, our paths have been pretty widely divided; so much so that at first I didn't know whether … not till I saw Chip… "

"Ah, poor little Chipstone: he's our hope, our consolation." She looked down, and a faint brick-red blush crossed her face like sunset on granite. "You see, Terry being so delicate—as twins often are—Mr. Wheater was always anxious for another boy."

"Well, Chip looks like a pretty solid foundation to build one's hopes on."

She smiled a little bleakly, and murmured: "He's never given us a minute's trouble."

All this was deeply interesting to her hearer, but it left the three "steps" still unaccounted for; the "steps" of whom Judith had said that they were as much beloved as if they had been "altogether ours."

"Not a minute's trouble—I wish I could say as much of the others," his neighbour went on, yielding, as he had hoped she would, to the rare chance of airing her grievances.

"The others? You mean—"

"Yes: those foreign children, with their scenes and their screams and their play-acting, I shall never get used to them—never!"

"But Zinnie: Zinnie's surely not foreign?" Boyne lured her on.

"Foreign to our ways, certainly; really more so than the two others, who, on the father's side… " She lowered her voice, and cast a prudent eye about her, before adding: "You've heard of Zinnia Lacrosse, the film star, I suppose?"

Boyne racked his mind, which was meagrely peopled with film stars, and finally thought he had. "Didn't she marry some racing man the other day—Lord Somebody?"

"I don't know what her last enormity has been. One of them was marrying Mr. Wheater—and having Zinnie… "

Marrying Wheater—Zinnia Lacrosse had married Cliffe Wheater? But then—but then—who on earth was Chipstone's mother? Boyne felt like crying out: "Don't pile up any more puzzles! Give me time—give me time!" but his neighbour was now so far launched in the way of avowal that she went on, hardly heeding him more than if his face had been the narrow grating through which she was pouring her woes: "It's inconceivable, but it's so. Mr. Wheater married Zinnia Lacrosse. And Zinnie is their child. The truth is, he wasn't altogether to blame; I've always stood up for Mr. Wheater. What with his feeling so low after Mrs. Wheater left him, and his wanting another boy so dreadfully … with all those millions to inherit… "

But Boyne held up a drowning hand. Mrs. Wheater had left Wheater? But when—but how—but why? He implored the merciless narrator to tell him one thing at a time—only one; all these sudden appearances of new people and new children were so perplexing to a man who'd lived for years and years in the wilderness…

"The wilderness? The real wilderness is the world we live in; packing up our tents every few weeks for another move… And the marriages just like tents—folded up and thrown away when you've done with them." But she saw, at least, that to gain his sympathy she must have his understanding, and after another cautious glance up and down the deck she settled down to elucidate the mystery and fill in the gaps. Of course, she began, Judith having told her that he—Mr. Boyne was the name? Thanks. Hers was Miss Scope, Horatia Scope (she knew the children called her "Horror Scope" behind her back, but she didn't mind)—well, Judith having told her that Mr. Boyne was a friend of her parents, Miss Scope had inferred that he had kept up with the successive episodes of the couple's agitated history; but now that she saw he didn't know, she would try to make it clear to him—if one could use the word in speaking of such a muddled business. It took a great deal of explaining—as he would see—but if any one could enlighten him she could, for she'd come to the Wheaters' as Judith's governess before Blanca and Terry were born: before the first, no, the second serious quarrel, she added, as if saying: "Before the Hittite invasion."

Quarrels, it seemed, there had been many since; she had lost count, she confessed; but the bad, the fatal, one had happened when Mrs. Wheater had met her Prince, the wicked Buondelmonte who was the father of Bun and Beechy: Beatrice and Astorre Buondelmonte, as the children were really named.

Here Boyne, submerged, had to hold up his hand again. But if Zinnie was Wheater's child, he interrupted, were Bun and Beechy Mrs. Wheater's? And whose, in the name of pity, was Chipstone? Well… Miss Scope said she understood his wonder, his perplexity; it did him credit, she declared, to be too high-minded to take in the whole painful truth at a glance. No; Bun and Beechy, thank heaven, were not Mrs. Wheater's children; they were the offspring of the unscrupulous Prince Buondelmonte and a vile woman—a circus performer, she believed—whom he had married and deserted before poor Mrs. Wheater became infatuated with him. ("Infatuated" was a horrid word, she knew; but Mrs. Wheater used it herself in speaking of that unhappy time.)

Well—Mrs. Wheater, in her madness, had insisted on leaving her husband in order to marry Prince Buondelmonte. Mr. Wheater, though she had behaved so badly, was very chivalrous about it, and "put himself in the wrong" (Boyne rejoiced at the phrase) so that his wife might divorce him; but he insisted on his right to keep Terry with him, and on an annual visit of four months from Judith and Blanca; and as there was a big fight over the alimony Mrs. Wheater had to give in about the children—and that was when Judith's heart-break began. Even as a little thing, Miss Scope explained, Judith couldn't bear it when her parents quarrelled. She had had to get used to that, alas; but what she couldn't get used to was, after the divorce and the two remarriages, being separated from Terry, and bundled up every year with Blanca, and sent from pillar to post, first to one Palace Hotel and then to another, wherever one parent or the other happened to be… It was that, Miss Scope thought, which had given the grown-up look to her eyes…

Luckily Mrs. Wheater's delusion didn't last long; the Prince hadn't let it. Before they'd been married a year he'd taken care to show her what he was. Poor Judith, who was alone with her mother during the last dreadful months, knew something of that. But Miss Scope realised that she mustn't digress, but just stick to the outline of her story till it became a little clearer to Mr. Boyne…

Well—when Mrs. Wheater's eyes were opened, and the final separation from the Prince took place, she (Mrs. Wheater) was so sorry for Beatrice and Astorre—there was really nobody kinder than Mrs. Wheater—that she kept the poor little things with her, and had gone on keeping them ever since. Their father had of course been only too thankful to have them taken off his hands—and their miserable mother too. Here Miss Scope paused for breath, and hoped that Mr. Boyne was beginning to grasp—

"Yes; beginning; but—Chipstone?" he patiently insisted.

"Oh, Chip; dear Chip's a Wheater all right! The very image of his father, don't you think? But I see that I haven't yet given you all the threads; there are so many… Where was I? Oh, about Mrs. Wheater's separation. You know there's no divorce in Italy, and she thought she was tied to the Prince for life. But luckily her lawyers found out that he had been legally married—in some Italian consulate at the other end of the world—to the mother of Bun and Beechy; and as the woman was still alive, the Prince's marriage with Mrs. Wheater had been bigamous, and was immediately annulled, and she became Mrs. Wheater again—"

"And then?"

"Then she was dreadfully miserable about it all, and Mr. Wheater was miserable too, because in the meanwhile he'd found out about the horror he'd married, and was already suing for a divorce. And Judith, who was thirteen by that time, and as wise and grown up as she is now, begged and entreated her father and mother to meet and talk things over, and see if they couldn't come together again, so that the children would never have to be separated, and sent backward and forward like bundles—"

"She did that? That child?"

"Judith's never been a child—there was no time. So she got Mr. and Mrs. Wheater together, and they were both sore and unhappy over their blunders, and realised what a mess they'd made—and finally they decided to try again, and they were remarried about three years ago; and then Chip was born, and of course that has made everything all right again—for the present."

"The present?" Boyne gasped; and the governess smoothed back her blown hair, and turned the worn integrity of her face on his.

"If I respect the truth, how can I say more than 'the present'? But really I put it that way only for fear … for fear of the Fates overhearing me… Everything's going as smoothly as can be; and we should all be perfectly happy if it weren't for poor Terry, whose health never seems to be what it should… Mr. and Mrs. Wheater adore Chip, and are very fond of the other children; and Judith is almost sure it will last this time."

Miss Scope broke off, and looked away again from Boyne. Her "almost" wrung his heart, and he wanted to put his hand out, and clasp the large gray cotton glove clenched on her knee. But instead he only said: "If anything can make it last, you and Judith will"; and the governess answered: "Oh, it's all Judith. And she has all the children behind her. They say they refuse to be separated again. Even the little ones say so. They're much more attached to each other than you'd think, to hear them bickering and wrangling. And they all worship Judith. Even the two foreigners do."