Madame de Treymes, by Edith Wharton

I

John Durham, while he waited for Madame de Malrive to draw on her gloves, stood in the hotel doorway looking out across the Rue de Rivoli at the afternoon brightness of the Tuileries gardens.

His European visits were infrequent enough to have kept unimpaired the freshness of his eye, and he was always struck anew by the vast and consummately ordered spectacle of Paris: by its look of having been boldly and deliberately planned as a background for the enjoyment of life, instead of being forced into grudging concessions to the festive instincts, or barricading itself against them in unenlightened ugliness, like his own lamentable New York.

But to-day, if the scene had never presented itself more alluringly, in that moist spring bloom between showers, when the horse-chestnuts dome themselves in unreal green against a gauzy sky, and the very dust of the pavement seems the fragrance of lilac made visible — to-day for the first time the sense of a personal stake in it all, of having to reckon individually with its effects and influences, kept Durham from an unrestrained yielding to the spell. Paris might still be — to the unimplicated it doubtless still was — the most beautiful city in the world; but whether it were the most lovable or the most detestable depended for him, in the last analysis, on the buttoning of the white glove over which Fanny de Malrive still lingered.

The mere fact of her having forgotten to draw on her gloves as they were descending in the hotel lift from his mother’s drawing-room was, in this connection, charged with significance to Durham. She was the kind of woman who always presents herself to the mind’s eye as completely equipped, as made up of exquisitely cared for and finely-related details; and that the heat of her parting with his family should have left her unconscious that she was emerging gloveless into Paris, seemed, on the whole, to speak hopefully for Durham’s future opinion of the city.

Even now, he could detect a certain confusion, a desire to draw breath and catch up with life, in the way she dawdled over the last buttons in the dimness of the porte-cochere, while her footman, outside, hung on her retarded signal.

When at length they emerged, it was to learn from that functionary that Madame la Marquise’s carriage had been obliged to yield its place at the door, but was at the moment in the act of regaining it. Madame de Malrive cut the explanation short. “I shall walk home. The carriage this evening at eight.”

As the footman turned away, she raised her eyes for the first time to Durham’s.

“Will you walk with me? Let us cross the Tuileries. I should like to sit a moment on the terrace.”

She spoke quite easily and naturally, as if it were the most commonplace thing in the world for them to be straying afoot together over Paris; but even his vague knowledge of the world she lived in — a knowledge mainly acquired through the perusal of yellow-backed fiction — gave a thrilling significance to her naturalness. Durham, indeed, was beginning to find that one of the charms of a sophisticated society is that it lends point and perspective to the slightest contact between the sexes. If, in the old unrestricted New York days, Fanny Frisbee, from a brown stone door-step, had proposed that they should take a walk in the Park, the idea would have presented itself to her companion as agreeable but unimportant; whereas Fanny de Malrive’s suggestion that they should stroll across the Tuileries was obviously fraught with unspecified possibilities.

He was so throbbing with the sense of these possibilities that he walked beside her without speaking down the length of the wide alley which follows the line of the Rue de Rivoli, suffering her even, when they reached its farthest end, to direct him in silence up the steps to the terrace of the Feuillants. For, after all, the possibilities were double-faced, and her bold departure from custom might simply mean that what she had to say was so dreadful that it needed all the tenderest mitigation of circumstance.

There was apparently nothing embarrassing to her in his silence: it was a part of her long European discipline that she had learned to manage pauses with ease. In her Frisbee days she might have packed this one with a random fluency; now she was content to let it widen slowly before them like the spacious prospect opening at their feet. The complicated beauty of this prospect, as they moved toward it between the symmetrically clipped limes of the lateral terrace, touched him anew through her nearness, as with the hint of some vast impersonal power, controlling and regulating her life in ways he could not guess, putting between himself and her the whole width of the civilization into which her marriage had absorbed her. And there was such fear in the thought — he read such derision of what he had to offer in the splendour of the great avenues tapering upward to the sunset glories of the Arch — that all he had meant to say when he finally spoke compressed itself at last into an abrupt unmitigated: “Well?”

She answered at once — as though she had only awaited the call of the national interrogation — “I don’t know when I have been so happy.”

“So happy?” The suddenness of his joy flushed up through his fair skin.

“As I was just now — taking tea with your mother and sisters.”

Durham’s “Oh!” of surprise betrayed also a note of disillusionment, which she met only by the reconciling murmur: “Shall we sit down?”

He found two of the springy yellow chairs indigenous to the spot, and placed them under the tree near which they had paused, saying reluctantly, as he did so: “Of course it was an immense pleasure to them to see you again.”

“Oh, not in the same way. I mean — ” she paused, sinking into the chair, and betraying, for the first time, a momentary inability to deal becomingly with the situation. “I mean,” she resumed smiling, “that it was not an event for them, as it was for me.”

“An event?” he caught her up again, eagerly; for what, in the language of any civilization, could that word mean but just the one thing he most wished it to?

“To be with dear, good, sweet, simple, real Americans again!” she burst out, heaping up her epithets with reckless prodigality.

Durham’s smile once more faded to impersonality, as he rejoined, just a shade on the defensive: “If it’s merely our Americanism you enjoyed — I’ve no doubt we can give you all you want in that line.”

“Yes, it’s just that! But if you knew what the word means to me! It means — it means — ” she paused as if to assure herself that they were sufficiently isolated from the desultory groups beneath the other trees — “it means that I’m safe with them: as safe as in a bank!”

Durham felt a sudden warmth behind his eyes and in his throat. “I think I do know — ”

“No, you don’t, really; you can’t know how dear and strange and familiar it all sounded: the old New York names that kept coming up in your mother’s talk, and her charming quaint ideas about Europe — their all regarding it as a great big innocent pleasure ground and shop for Americans; and your mother’s missing the home-made bread and preferring the American asparagus — I’m so tired of Americans who despise even their own asparagus! And then your married sister’s spending her summers at — where is it? — the Kittawittany House on Lake Pohunk — ”

A vision of earnest women in Shetland shawls, with spectacles and thin knobs of hair, eating blueberry pie at unwholesome hours in a shingled dining-room on a bare New England hill-top, rose pallidly between Durham and the verdant brightness of the Champs Elysees, and he protested with a slight smile: “Oh, but my married sister is the black sheep of the family — the rest of us never sank as low as that.”

“Low? I think it’s beautiful — fresh and innocent and simple. I remember going to such a place once. They have early dinner — rather late — and go off in buckboards over terrible roads, and bring back golden rod and autumn leaves, and read nature books aloud on the piazza; and there is always one shy young man in flannels — only one — who has come to see the prettiest girl (though how he can choose among so many!) and who takes her off in a buggy for hours and hours — ” She paused and summed up with a long sigh: “It is fifteen years since I was in America.”

“And you’re still so good an American.”

“Oh, a better and better one every day!”

He hesitated. “Then why did you never come back?”

Her face altered instantly, exchanging its retrospective light for the look of slightly shadowed watchfulness which he had known as most habitual to it.

“It was impossible — it has always been so. My husband would not go; and since — since our separation — there have been family reasons.”

Durham sighed impatiently. “Why do you talk of reasons? The truth is, you have made your life here. You could never give all this up!” He made a discouraged gesture in the direction of the Place de la Concorde.

“Give it up! I would go tomorrow! But it could never, now, be for more than a visit. I must live in France on account of my boy.”

Durham’s heart gave a quick beat. At last the talk had neared the point toward which his whole mind was straining, and he began to feel a personal application in her words. But that made him all the more cautious about choosing his own.

“It is an agreement — about the boy?” he ventured.

“I gave my word. They knew that was enough,” she said proudly; adding, as if to put him in full possession of her reasons: “It would have been much more difficult for me to obtain complete control of my son if it had not been understood that I was to live in France.”

“That seems fair,” Durham assented after a moment’s reflection: it was his instinct, even in the heat of personal endeavour, to pause a moment on the question of “fairness.” The personal claim reasserted itself as he added tentatively: “But when he is brought up — when he’s grown up: then you would feel freer?”

She received this with a start, as a possibility too remote to have entered into her view of the future. “He is only eight years old!” she objected.

“Ah, of course it would be a long way off?”

“A long way off, thank heaven! French mothers part late with their sons, and in that one respect I mean to be a French mother.”

“Of course — naturally — since he has only you,” Durham again assented.

He was eager to show how fully he took her point of view, if only to dispose her to the reciprocal fairness of taking his when the time came to present it. And he began to think that the time had now come; that their walk would not have thus resolved itself, without excuse or pretext, into a tranquil session beneath the trees, for any purpose less important than that of giving him his opportunity.

He took it, characteristically, without seeking a transition. “When I spoke to you, the other day, about myself — about what I felt for you — I said nothing of the future, because, for the moment, my mind refused to travel beyond its immediate hope of happiness. But I felt, of course, even then, that the hope involved various difficulties — that we can’t, as we might once have done, come together without any thought but for ourselves; and whatever your answer is to be, I want to tell you now that I am ready to accept my share of the difficulties.” He paused, and then added explicitly: “If there’s the least chance of your listening to me, I’m willing to live over here as long as you can keep your boy with you.”

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