Coming Home, by Edith Wharton

III

The day before we started for Réchamp his spirits flew up again, and that night he became confidential. “You’ve been such a friend to me that there are certain things — seeing what’s ahead of us — that I should like to explain”; and, noticing my surprise, he went on: “I mean about my people. The state of mind in my milieu must be so remote from anything you’re used to in your happy country. . . . But perhaps I can make you understand. . . . ”

I saw that what he wanted was to talk to me of the girl he was engaged to. Mlle. Malo, left an orphan at ten, had been the ward of a neighbour of the Réchamps’, a chap with an old name and a starred château, who had lost almost everything else at baccarat before he was forty, and had repented, had the gout and studied agriculture for the rest of his life. The girl’s father was a rather brilliant painter, who died young, and her mother, who followed him in a year or two, was a Pole: you may fancy that, with such antecedents, the girl was just the mixture to shake down quietly into French country life with a gouty and repentant guardian. The Marquis de Corvenaire — that was his name — brought her down to his place, got an old maid sister to come and stay, and really, as far as one knows, brought his ward up rather decently.

Now and then she used to be driven over to play with the young Réchamps, and Jean remembered her as an ugly little girl in a plaid frock, who used to invent wonderful games and get tired of playing them just as the other children were beginning to learn how. But her domineering ways and searching questions did not meet with his mother’s approval, and her visits were not encouraged. When she was seventeen her guardian died and left her a little money. The maiden sister had gone dotty, there was nobody to look after Yvonne, and she went to Paris, to an aunt, broke loose from the aunt when she came of age, set up her studio, travelled, painted, played the violin, knew lots of people; and never laid eyes on Jean de Réchamp till about a year before the war, when her guardian’s place was sold, and she had to go down there to see about her interest in the property.

The old Réchamps heard she was coming, but didn’t ask her to stay. Jean drove over to the shut-up chateau, however, and found Mlle. Malo lunching on a corner of the kitchen table. She exclaimed: “My little Jean!” flew to him with a kiss for each cheek, and made him sit down and share her omelet. . . . The ugly little girl had shed her chrysalis — and you may fancy if he went back once or twice!

Mlle. Malo was staying at the chateau all alone, with the farmer’s wife to come in and cook her dinner: not a soul in the house at night but herself and her brindled sheep dog. She had to be there a week, and Jean suggested to his people to ask her to Réchamp. But at Réchamp they hesitated, coughed, looked away, said the sparerooms were all upside down, and the valet-de-chambre laid up with the mumps, and the cook short-handed — till finally the irrepressible grandmother broke out: “A young girl who chooses to live alone — probably prefers to live alone!”

There was a deadly silence, and Jean did not raise the question again; but I can imagine his blue eyes getting obstinate.

Soon after Mlle. Malo’s return to Paris he followed her and began to frequent the Passy studio. The life there was unlike anything he had ever seen — or conceived as possible, short of the prairies. He had sampled the usual varieties of French womankind, and explored most of the social layers; but he had missed the newest, that of the artistic-emancipated. I don’t know much about that set myself, but from his descriptions I should say they were a good deal like intelligent Americans, except that they don’t seem to keep art and life in such water-tight compartments. But his great discovery was the new girl. Apparently he had never before known any but the traditional type, which predominates in the provinces, and still persists, he tells me, in the last fastnesses of the Faubourg St. Germain. The girl who comes and goes as she pleases, reads what she likes, has opinions about what she reads, who talks, looks, behaves with the independence of a married woman — and yet has kept the Diana-freshness — think how she must have shaken up such a man’s inherited view of things! Mlle. Malo did far more than make Réchamp fall in love with her: she turned his world topsy-turvey, and prevented his ever again squeezing himself into his little old pigeon-hole of prejudices.

Before long they confessed their love — just like any young couple of Anglo–Saxons — and Jean went down to Réchamp to ask permission to marry her. Neither you nor I can quite enter into the state of mind of a young man of twenty-seven who has knocked about all over the globe, and been in and out of the usual sentimental coils — and who has to ask his parents’ leave to get married! Don’t let us try: it’s no use. We should only end by picturing him as an incorrigible ninny. But there isn’t a man in France who wouldn’t feel it his duty to take that step, as Jean de Réchamp did. All we can do is to accept the premise and pass on.

Well — Jean went down and asked his father and his mother and his old grandmother if they would permit him to marry Mlle. Malo; and they all with one voice said they wouldn’t. There was an uproar, in fact; and the old grandmother contributed the most piercing note to the concert. Marry Mlle. Malo! A young girl who lived alone! Travelled! Spent her time with foreigners — with musicians and painters! A young girl! Of course, if she had been a married woman — that is, a widow — much as they would have preferred a young girl for Jean, or even, if widow it had to be, a widow of another type — still, it was conceivable that, out of affection for him, they might have resigned themselves to his choice. But a young girl — bring such a young girl to Réchamp! Ask them to receive her under the same roof with their little Simone, their innocent Alain. . . .

He had a bad hour of it; but he held his own, keeping silent while they screamed, and stiffening as they began to wobble from exhaustion. Finally he took his mother apart, and tried to reason with her. His arguments were not much use, but his resolution impressed her, and he saw it. As for his father, nobody was afraid of Monsieur de Réchamp. When he said: “Never — never while I live, and there is a roof on Réchamp!” they all knew he had collapsed inside. But the grandmother was terrible. She was terrible because she was so old, and so clever at taking advantage of it. She could bring on a valvular heart attack by just sitting still and holding her breath, as Jean and his mother had long since found out; and she always treated them to one when things weren’t going as she liked. Madame de Réchamp promised Jean that she would intercede with her mother-in-law; but she hadn’t much faith in the result, and when she came out of the old lady’s room she whispered: “She’s just sitting there holding her breath.”

The next day Jean himself advanced to the attack. His grandmother was the most intelligent member of the family, and she knew he knew it, and liked him for having found it out; so when he had her alone she listened to him without resorting to any valvular tricks. “Of course,” he explained, “you’re much too clever not to understand that the times have changed, and manners with them, and that what a woman was criticised for doing yesterday she is ridiculed for not doing to-day. Nearly all the old social thou-shalt-nots have gone: intelligent people nowadays don’t give a fig for them, and that simple fact has abolished them. They only existed as long as there was some one left for them to scare.” His grandmother listened with a sparkle of admiration in her ancient eyes. “And of course,” Jean pursued, “that can’t be the real reason for your opposing my marriage — a marriage with a young girl you’ve always known, who has been received here — ”

“Ah, that’s it — we’ve always known her!” the old lady snapped him up.

“What of that? I don’t see — ”

“Of course you don’t. You’re here so little: you don’t hear things. . . . ”

“What things?”

“Things in the air . . . that blow about. . . . You were doing your military service at the time. . . . ”

“At what time?”

She leaned forward and laid a warning hand on his arm. “Why did Corvenaire leave her all that money — why?

“But why not — why shouldn’t he?” Jean stammered, indignant. Then she unpacked her bag — a heap of vague insinuations, baseless conjectures, village tattle, all, at the last analysis, based, as he succeeded in proving, and making her own, on a word launched at random by a discharged maid-servant who had retailed her grievance to the cure’s housekeeper. “Oh, she does what she likes with Monsieur le Marquis, the young miss! She knows how. . . . ” On that single phrase the neighbourhood had raised a slander built of adamant.

Well, I’ll give you an idea of what a determined fellow Réchamp is, when I tell you he pulled it down — or thought he did. He kept his temper, hunted up the servant’s record, proved her a liar and dishonest, cast grave doubts on the discretion of the cure’s housekeeper, and poured such a flood of ridicule over the whole flimsy fable, and those who had believed in it, that in sheer shamefacedness at having based her objection on such grounds, his grandmother gave way, and brought his parents toppling down with her.

All this happened a few weeks before the war, and soon afterward Mlle. Malo came down to Réchamp. Jean had insisted on her coming: he wanted her presence there, as his betrothed, to be known to the neighbourhood. As for her, she seemed delighted to come. I could see from Rechamp’s tone, when he reached this part of his story, that he rather thought I should expect its heroine to have shown a becoming reluctance — to have stood on her dignity. He was distinctly relieved when he found I expected no such thing.

“She’s simplicity itself — it’s her great quality. Vain complications don’t exist for her, because she doesn’t see them . . . that’s what my people can’t be made to understand. . . . ”

I gathered from the last phrase that the visit had not been a complete success, and this explained his having let out, when he first told me of his fears for his family, that he was sure Mlle. Malo would not have remained at Réchamp if she could help it. Oh, no, decidedly, the visit was not a success. . . .

“You see,” he explained with a half-embarrassed smile, “it was partly her fault. Other girls as clever, but less — how shall I say? — less proud, would have adapted themselves, arranged things, avoided startling allusions. She wouldn’t stoop to that; she talked to my family as naturally as she did to me. You can imagine for instance, the effect of her saying: ‘One night, after a supper at Montmartre, I was walking home with two or three pals’ — . It was her way of affirming her convictions, and I adored her for it — but I wished she wouldn’t!”

And he depicted, to my joy, the neighbours rumbling over to call in heraldic barouches (the mothers alone — with embarrassed excuses for not bringing their daughters), and the agony of not knowing, till they were in the room, if Yvonne would receive them with lowered lids and folded hands, sitting by in a pose de fiancée while the elders talked; or if she would take the opportunity to air her views on the separation of Church and State, or the necessity of making divorce easier. “It’s not,” he explained, “that she really takes much interest in such questions: she’s much more absorbed in her music and painting. But anything her eye lights on sets her mind dancing — as she said to me once: ‘It’s your mother’s friends’ bonnets that make me stand up for divorce!’” He broke off abruptly to add: “Good God, how far off all that nonsense seems!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/coming_home/chapter3.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30