Madame de Treymes, by Edith Wharton

IV

Madame de Treymes’ friendly observation of her sister-in-law’s visitors resulted in no expression on her part of a desire to renew her study of them. To all appearances, she passed out of their lives when Madame de Malrive’s door closed on her; and Durham felt that the arduous task of making her acquaintance was still to be begun.

He felt also, more than ever, the necessity of attempting it; and in his determination to lose no time, and his perplexity how to set most speedily about the business, he bethought himself of applying to his cousin Mrs. Boykin.

Mrs. Elmer Boykin was a small plump woman, to whose vague prettiness the lines of middle-age had given no meaning: as though whatever had happened to her had merely added to the sum total of her inexperience. After a Parisian residence of twenty-five years, spent in a state of feverish servitude to the great artists of the rue de la Paix, her dress and hair still retained a certain rigidity in keeping with the directness of her gaze and the unmodulated candour of her voice. Her very drawing-room had the hard bright atmosphere of her native skies, and one felt that she was still true at heart to the national ideals in electric lighting and plumbing.

She and her husband had left America owing to the impossibility of living there with the finish and decorum which the Boykin standard demanded; but in the isolation of their exile they had created about them a kind of phantom America, where the national prejudices continued to flourish unchecked by the national progressiveness: a little world sparsely peopled by compatriots in the same attitude of chronic opposition toward a society chronically unaware of them. In this uncontaminated air Mr. and Mrs. Boykin had preserved the purity of simpler conditions, and Elmer Boykin, returning rakishly from a Sunday’s racing at Chantilly, betrayed, under his “knowing” coat and the racing-glasses slung ostentatiously across his shoulder, the unmistakeable cut of the American business man coming “up town” after a long day in the office.

It was a part of the Boykins’ uncomfortable but determined attitude — and perhaps a last expression of their latent patriotism — to live in active disapproval of the world about them, fixing in memory with little stabs of reprobation innumerable instances of what the abominable foreigner was doing; so that they reminded Durham of persons peacefully following the course of a horrible war by pricking red pins in a map. To Mrs. Durham, with her gentle tourist’s view of the European continent, as a vast Museum in which the human multitudes simply furnished the element of costume, the Boykins seemed abysmally instructed, and darkly expert in forbidden things; and her son, without sharing her simple faith in their omniscience, credited them with an ample supply of the kind of information of which he was in search.

Mrs. Boykin, from the corner of an intensely modern Gobelin sofa, studied her cousin as he balanced himself insecurely on one of the small gilt chairs which always look surprised at being sat in.

“Fanny de Malrive? Oh, of course: I remember you were all very intimate with the Frisbees when they lived in West Thirty-third Street. But she has dropped all her American friends since her marriage. The excuse was that de Malrive didn’t like them; but as she’s been separated for five or six years, I can’t see — . You say she’s been very nice to your mother and the girls? Well, I daresay she is beginning to feel the need of friends she can really trust; for as for her French relations —! That Malrive set is the worst in the Faubourg. Of course you know what he is; even the family, for decency’s sake, had to back her up, and urge her to get a separation. And Christiane de Treymes — ”

Durham seized his opportunity. “Is she so very reprehensible too?”

Mrs. Boykin pursed up her small colourless mouth. “I can’t speak from personal experience. I know Madame de Treymes slightly — I have met her at Fanny’s — but she never remembers the fact except when she wants me to go to one of her ventes de charite. They all remember us then; and some American women are silly enough to ruin themselves at the smart bazaars, and fancy they will get invitations in return. They say Mrs. Addison G. Pack followed Madame d’Alglade around for a whole winter, and spent a hundred thousand francs at her stalls; and at the end of the season Madame d’Alglade asked her to tea, and when she got there she found that was for a charity too, and she had to pay a hundred francs to get in.”

Mrs. Boykin paused with a smile of compassion. “That is not my way,” she continued. “Personally I have no desire to thrust myself into French society — I can’t see how any American woman can do so without loss of self-respect. But any one can tell you about Madame de Treymes.”

“I wish you would, then,” Durham suggested.

“Well, I think Elmer had better,” said his wife mysteriously, as Mr. Boykin, at this point, advanced across the wide expanse of Aubusson on which his wife and Durham were islanded in a state of propinquity without privacy.

“What’s that, Bessy? Hah, Durham, how are you? Didn’t see you at Auteuil this afternoon. You don’t race? Busy sight-seeing, I suppose? What was that my wife was telling you? Oh, about Madame de Treymes.”

He stroked his pepper-and-salt moustache with a gesture intended rather to indicate than conceal the smile of experience beneath it. “Well, Madame de Treymes has not been like a happy country — she’s had a history: several of ’em. Some one said she constituted the feuilleton of the Faubourg daily news. La suite au prochain numero — you see the point? Not that I speak from personal knowledge. Bessy and I have never cared to force our way — ” He paused, reflecting that his wife had probably anticipated him in the expression of this familiar sentiment, and added with a significant nod: “Of course you know the Prince d’Armillac by sight? No? I’m surprised at that. Well, he’s one of the choicest ornaments of the Jockey Club: very fascinating to the ladies, I believe, but the deuce and all at baccara. Ruined his mother and a couple of maiden aunts already — and now Madame de Treymes has put the family pearls up the spout, and is wearing imitation for love of him.”

“I had that straight from my maid’s cousin, who is employed by Madame d’Armillac’s jeweller,” said Mrs. Boykin with conscious pride.

“Oh, it’s straight enough — more than she is!” retorted her husband, who was slightly jealous of having his facts reinforced by any information not of his own gleaning.

“Be careful of what you say, Elmer,” Mrs. Boykin interposed with archness. “I suspect John of being seriously smitten by the lady.”

Durham let this pass unchallenged, submitting with a good grace to his host’s low whistle of amusement, and the sardonic enquiry: “Ever do anything with the foils? D’Armillac is what they call over here a fine lame.”

“Oh, I don’t mean to resort to bloodshed unless it’s absolutely necessary; but I mean to make the lady’s acquaintance,” said Durham, falling into his key.

Mrs. Boykin’s lips tightened to the vanishing point. “I am afraid you must apply for an introduction to more fashionable people than we are. Elmer and I so thoroughly disapprove of French society that we have always declined to take any part in it. But why should not Fanny de Malrive arrange a meeting for you?”

Durham hesitated. “I don’t think she is on very intimate terms with her husband’s family — ”

“You mean that she’s not allowed to introduce her friends to them,” Mrs. Boykin interjected sarcastically; while her husband added, with an air of portentous initiation: “Ah, my dear fellow, the way they treat the Americans over here — that’s another chapter, you know.”

“How some people can stand it!” Mrs. Boykin chimed in; and as the footman, entering at that moment, tendered her a large coronetted envelope, she held it up as if in illustration of the indignities to which her countrymen were subjected.

“Look at that, my dear John,” she exclaimed — “another card to one of their everlasting bazaars! Why, it’s at Madame d’Armillac’s, the Prince’s mother. Madame de Treymes must have sent it, of course. The brazen way in which they combine religion and immorality! Fifty francs admission — rien que cela! — to see some of the most disreputable people in Europe. And if you’re an American, you’re expected to leave at least a thousand behind you. Their own people naturally get off cheaper.” She tossed over the card to her cousin. “There’s your opportunity to see Madame de Treymes.”

“Make it two thousand, and she’ll ask you to tea,” Mr. Boykin scathingly added.

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