Madame de Treymes, by Edith Wharton

II

Whatever Madame de Malrive’s answer was to be, there could be no doubt as to her readiness to listen. She received Durham’s words without sign of resistance, and took time to ponder them gently before she answered in a voice touched by emotion: “You are very generous — very unselfish; but when you fix a limit — no matter how remote — to my remaining here, I see how wrong it is to let myself consider for a moment such possibilities as we have been talking of.”

“Wrong? Why should it be wrong?”

“Because I shall want to keep my boy always! Not, of course, in the sense of living with him, or even forming an important part of his life; I am not deluded enough to think that possible. But I do believe it possible never to pass wholly out of his life; and while there is a hope of that, how can I leave him?” She paused, and turned on him a new face, a face in which the past of which he was still so ignorant showed itself like a shadow suddenly darkening a clear pane. “How can I make you understand?” she went on urgently. “It is not only because of my love for him — not only, I mean, because of my own happiness in being with him; that I can’t, in imagination, surrender even the remotest hour of his future; it is because, the moment he passes out of my influence, he passes under that other — the influence I have been fighting against every hour since he was born! — I don’t mean, you know,” she added, as Durham, with bent head, continued to offer the silent fixity of his attention, “I don’t mean the special personal influence — except inasmuch as it represents something wider, more general, something that encloses and circulates through the whole world in which he belongs. That is what I meant when I said you could never understand! There is nothing in your experience — in any American experience — to correspond with that far-reaching family organization, which is itself a part of the larger system, and which encloses a young man of my son’s position in a network of accepted prejudices and opinions. Everything is prepared in advance — his political and religious convictions, his judgments of people, his sense of honour, his ideas of women, his whole view of life. He is taught to see vileness and corruption in every one not of his own way of thinking, and in every idea that does not directly serve the religious and political purposes of his class. The truth isn’t a fixed thing: it’s not used to test actions by, it’s tested by them, and made to fit in with them. And this forming of the mind begins with the child’s first consciousness; it’s in his nursery stories, his baby prayers, his very games with his playmates! Already he is only half mine, because the Church has the other half, and will be reaching out for my share as soon as his education begins. But that other half is still mine, and I mean to make it the strongest and most living half of the two, so that, when the inevitable conflict begins, the energy and the truth and the endurance shall be on my side and not on theirs!”

She paused, flushing with the repressed fervour of her utterance, though her voice had not been raised beyond its usual discreet modulations; and Durham felt himself tingling with the transmitted force of her resolve. Whatever shock her words brought to his personal hope, he was grateful to her for speaking them so clearly, for having so sure a grasp of her purpose.

Her decision strengthened his own, and after a pause of deliberation he said quietly: “There might be a good deal to urge on the other side — the ineffectualness of your sacrifice, the probability that when your son marries he will inevitably be absorbed back into the life of his class and his people; but I can’t look at it in that way, because if I were in your place I believe I should feel just as you do about it. As long as there was a fighting chance I should want to keep hold of my half, no matter how much the struggle cost me. And one reason why I understand your feeling about your boy is that I have the same feeling about you: as long as there’s a fighting chance of keeping my half of you — the half he is willing to spare me — I don’t see how I can ever give it up.” He waited again, and then brought out firmly: “If you’ll marry me, I’ll agree to live out here as long as you want, and we’ll be two instead of one to keep hold of your half of him.”

He raised his eyes as he ended, and saw that hers met them through a quick clouding of tears.

“Ah, I am glad to have had this said to me! But I could never accept such an offer.”

He caught instantly at the distinction. “That doesn’t mean that you could never accept me?

“Under such conditions — ”

“But if I am satisfied with the conditions? Don’t think I am speaking rashly, under the influence of the moment. I have expected something of this sort, and I have thought out my side of the case. As far as material circumstances go, I have worked long enough and successfully enough to take my ease and take it where I choose. I mention that because the life I offer you is offered to your boy as well.” He let this sink into her mind before summing up gravely: “The offer I make is made deliberately, and at least I have a right to a direct answer.”

She was silent again, and then lifted a cleared gaze to his. “My direct answer then is: if I were still Fanny Frisbee I would marry you.”

He bent toward her persuasively. “But you will be — when the divorce is pronounced.”

“Ah, the divorce — ” She flushed deeply, with an instinctive shrinking back of her whole person which made him straighten himself in his chair.

“Do you so dislike the idea?”

“The idea of divorce? No — not in my case. I should like anything that would do away with the past — obliterate it all — make everything new in my life!”

“Then what —?” he began again, waiting with the patience of a wooer on the uneasy circling of her tormented mind.

“Oh, don’t ask me; I don’t know; I am frightened.”

Durham gave a deep sigh of discouragement. “I thought your coming here with me today — and above all your going with me just now to see my mother — was a sign that you were not frightened!”

“Well, I was not when I was with your mother. She made everything seem easy and natural. She took me back into that clear American air where there are no obscurities, no mysteries — ”

“What obscurities, what mysteries, are you afraid of?”

She looked about her with a faint shiver. “I am afraid of everything!” she said.

“That’s because you are alone; because you’ve no one to turn to. I’ll clear the air for you fast enough if you’ll let me.”

He looked forth defiantly, as if flinging his challenge at the great city which had come to typify the powers contending with him for her possession.

“You say that so easily! But you don’t know; none of you know.”

“Know what?”

“The difficulties — ”

“I told you I was ready to take my share of the difficulties — and my share naturally includes yours. You know Americans are great hands at getting over difficulties.” He drew himself up confidently. “Just leave that to me — only tell me exactly what you’re afraid of.”

She paused again, and then said: “The divorce, to begin with — they will never consent to it.”

He noticed that she spoke as though the interests of the whole clan, rather than her husband’s individual claim, were to be considered; and the use of the plural pronoun shocked his free individualism like a glimpse of some dark feudal survival.

“But you are absolutely certain of your divorce! I’ve consulted — of course without mentioning names — ”

She interrupted him, with a melancholy smile: “Ah, so have I. The divorce would be easy enough to get, if they ever let it come into the courts.”

“How on earth can they prevent that?”

“I don’t know; my never knowing how they will do things is one of the secrets of their power.”

“Their power? What power?” he broke in with irrepressible contempt. “Who are these bogeys whose machinations are going to arrest the course of justice in a — comparatively — civilized country? You’ve told me yourself that Monsieur de Malrive is the least likely to give you trouble; and the others are his uncle the abbe, his mother and sister. That kind of a syndicate doesn’t scare me much. A priest and two women contra mundum!

She shook her head. “Not contra mundum, but with it, their whole world is behind them. It’s that mysterious solidarity that you can’t understand. One doesn’t know how far they may reach, or in how many directions. I have never known. They have always cropped up where I least expected them.”

Before this persistency of negation Durham’s buoyancy began to flag, but his determination grew the more fixed.

“Well, then, supposing them to possess these supernatural powers; do you think it’s to people of that kind that I’ll ever consent to give you up?”

She raised a half-smiling glance of protest. “Oh, they’re not wantonly wicked. They’ll leave me alone as long as — ”

“As I do?” he interrupted. “Do you want me to leave you alone? Was that what you brought me here to tell me?”

The directness of the challenge seemed to gather up the scattered strands of her hesitation, and lifting her head she turned on him a look in which, but for its underlying shadow, he might have recovered the full free beam of Fanny Frisbee’s gaze.

“I don’t know why I brought you here,” she said gently, “except from the wish to prolong a little the illusion of being once more an American among Americans. Just now, sitting there with your mother and Katy and Nannie, the difficulties seemed to vanish; the problems grew as trivial to me as they are to you. And I wanted them to remain so a little longer; I wanted to put off going back to them. But it was of no use — they were waiting for me here. They are over there now in that house across the river.” She indicated the grey sky-line of the Faubourg, shining in the splintered radiance of the sunset beyond the long sweep of the quays. “They are a part of me — I belong to them. I must go back to them!” she sighed.

She rose slowly to her feet, as though her metaphor had expressed an actual fact and she felt herself bodily drawn from his side by the influences of which she spoke.

Durham had risen too. “Then I go back with you!” he exclaimed energetically; and as she paused, wavering a little under the shock of his resolve: “I don’t mean into your house — but into your life!” he said.

She suffered him, at any rate, to accompany her to the door of the house, and allowed their debate to prolong itself through the almost monastic quiet of the quarter which led thither. On the way, he succeeded in wresting from her the confession that, if it were possible to ascertain in advance that her husband’s family would not oppose her action, she might decide to apply for a divorce. Short of a positive assurance on this point, she made it clear that she would never move in the matter; there must be no scandal, no retentissement, nothing which her boy, necessarily brought up in the French tradition of scrupulously preserved appearances, could afterward regard as the faintest blur on his much-quartered escutcheon. But even this partial concession again raised fresh obstacles; for there seemed to be no one to whom she could entrust so delicate an investigation, and to apply directly to the Marquis de Malrive or his relatives appeared, in the light of her past experience, the last way of learning their intentions.

“But,” Durham objected, beginning to suspect a morbid fixity of idea in her perpetual attitude of distrust — “but surely you have told me that your husband’s sister — what is her name? Madame de Treymes? — was the most powerful member of the group, and that she has always been on your side.”

She hesitated. “Yes, Christiane has been on my side. She dislikes her brother. But it would not do to ask her.”

“But could no one else ask her? Who are her friends?”

“She has a great many; and some, of course, are mine. But in a case like this they would be all hers; they wouldn’t hesitate a moment between us.”

“Why should it be necessary to hesitate between you? Suppose Madame de Treymes sees the reasonableness of what you ask; suppose, at any rate, she sees the hopelessness of opposing you? Why should she make a mystery of your opinion?”

“It’s not that; it is that, if I went to her friends, I should never get her real opinion from them. At least I should never know if it is was her real opinion; and therefore I should be no farther advanced. Don’t you see?”

Durham struggled between the sentimental impulse to soothe her, and the practical instinct that it was a moment for unmitigated frankness.

“I’m not sure that I do; but if you can’t find out what Madame de Treymes thinks, I’ll see what I can do myself.”

“Oh — you!” broke from her in mingled terror and admiration; and pausing on her doorstep to lay her hand in his before she touched the bell, she added with a half-whimsical flash of regret: “Why didn’t this happen to Fanny Frisbee?”

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