Madame de Treymes, by Edith Wharton

V

In the monumental drawing-room of the Hotel de Malrive — it had been a surprise to the American to read the name of the house emblazoned on black marble over its still more monumental gateway — Durham found himself surrounded by a buzz of feminine tea-sipping oddly out of keeping with the wigged and cuirassed portraits frowning high on the walls, the majestic attitude of the furniture, the rigidity of great gilt consoles drawn up like lords-in-waiting against the tarnished panels.

It was the old Marquise de Malrive’s “day,” and Madame de Treymes, who lived with her mother, had admitted Durham to the heart of the enemy’s country by inviting him, after his prodigal disbursements at the charity bazaar, to come in to tea on a Thursday. Whether, in thus fulfilling Mr. Boykin’s prediction, she had been aware of Durham’s purpose, and had her own reasons for falling in with it; or whether she simply wished to reward his lavishness at the fair, and permit herself another glimpse of an American so picturesquely embodying the type familiar to French fiction — on these points Durham was still in doubt.

Meanwhile, Madame de Treymes being engaged with a venerable Duchess in a black shawl — all the older ladies present had the sloping shoulders of a generation of shawl-wearers — her American visitor, left in the isolation of his unimportance, was using it as a shelter for a rapid survey of the scene.

He had begun his study of Fanny de Malrive’s situation without any real understanding of her fears. He knew the repugnance to divorce existing in the French Catholic world, but since the French laws sanctioned it, and in a case so flagrant as his injured friend’s, would inevitably accord it with the least possible delay and exposure, he could not take seriously any risk of opposition on the part of the husband’s family. Madame de Malrive had not become a Catholic, and since her religious scruples could not be played on, the only weapon remaining to the enemy — the threat of fighting the divorce — was one they could not wield without self-injury. Certainly, if the chief object were to avoid scandal, common sense must counsel Monsieur de Malrive and his friends not to give the courts an opportunity of exploring his past; and since the echo of such explorations, and their ultimate transmission to her son, were what Madame de Malrive most dreaded, the opposing parties seemed to have a common ground for agreement, and Durham could not but regard his friend’s fears as the result of over-taxed sensibilities. All this had seemed evident enough to him as he entered the austere portals of the Hotel de Malrive and passed, between the faded liveries of old family servants, to the presence of the dreaded dowager above. But he had not been ten minutes in that presence before he had arrived at a faint intuition of what poor Fanny meant. It was not in the exquisite mildness of the old Marquise, a little gray-haired bunch of a woman in dowdy mourning, or in the small neat presence of the priestly uncle, the Abbe who had so obviously just stepped down from one of the picture-frames overhead: it was not in the aspect of these chief protagonists, so outwardly unformidable, that Durham read an occult danger to his friend. It was rather in their setting, their surroundings, the little company of elderly and dowdy persons — so uniformly clad in weeping blacks and purples that they might have been assembled for some mortuary anniversary — it was in the remoteness and the solidarity of this little group that Durham had his first glimpse of the social force of which Fanny de Malrive had spoken. All these amiably chatting visitors, who mostly bore the stamp of personal insignificance on their mildly sloping or aristocratically beaked faces, hung together in a visible closeness of tradition, dress, attitude and manner, as different as possible from the loose aggregation of a roomful of his own countrymen. Durham felt, as he observed them, that he had never before known what “society” meant; nor understood that, in an organized and inherited system, it exists full-fledged where two or three of its members are assembled.

Upon this state of bewilderment, this sense of having entered a room in which the lights had suddenly been turned out, even Madame de Treymes’ intensely modern presence threw no illumination. He was conscious, as she smilingly rejoined him, not of her points of difference from the others, but of the myriad invisible threads by which she held to them; he even recognized the audacious slant of her little brown profile in the portrait of a powdered ancestress beneath which she had paused a moment in advancing. She was simply one particular facet of the solid, glittering impenetrable body which he had thought to turn in his hands and look through like a crystal; and when she said, in her clear staccato English, “Perhaps you will like to see the other rooms,” he felt like crying out in his blindness: “If I could only be sure of seeing anything here!” Was she conscious of his blindness, and was he as remote and unintelligible to her as she was to him? This possibility, as he followed her through the nobly-unfolding rooms of the great house, gave him his first hope of recoverable advantage. For, after all, he had some vague traditional lights on her world and its antecedents; whereas to her he was a wholly new phenomenon, as unexplained as a fragment of meteorite dropped at her feet on the smooth gravel of the garden-path they were pacing.

She had led him down into the garden, in response to his admiring exclamation, and perhaps also because she was sure that, in the chill spring afternoon, they would have its embowered privacies to themselves. The garden was small, but intensely rich and deep — one of those wells of verdure and fragrance which everywhere sweeten the air of Paris by wafts blown above old walls on quiet streets; and as Madame de Treymes paused against the ivy bank masking its farther boundary, Durham felt more than ever removed from the normal bearings of life.

His sense of strangeness was increased by the surprise of his companion’s next speech.

“You wish to marry my sister-in-law?” she asked abruptly; and Durham’s start of wonder was followed by an immediate feeling of relief. He had expected the preliminaries of their interview to be as complicated as the bargaining in an Eastern bazaar, and had feared to lose himself at the first turn in a labyrinth of “foreign” intrigue.

“Yes, I do,” he said with equal directness; and they smiled together at the sharp report of question and answer.

The smile put Durham more completely at his ease, and after waiting for her to speak, he added with deliberation: “So far, however, the wishing is entirely on my side.” His scrupulous conscience felt itself justified in this reserve by the conditional nature of Madame de Malrive’s consent.

“I understand; but you have been given reason to hope — ”

“Every man in my position gives himself his own reasons for hoping,” he interposed with a smile.

“I understand that too,” Madame de Treymes assented. “But still — you spent a great deal of money the other day at our bazaar.”

“Yes: I wanted to have a talk with you, and it was the readiest — if not the most distinguished — means of attracting your attention.”

“I understand,” she once more reiterated, with a gleam of amusement.

“It is because I suspect you of understanding everything that I have been so anxious for this opportunity.”

She bowed her acknowledgement, and said: “Shall we sit a moment?” adding, as he drew their chairs under a tree: “You permit me, then, to say that I believe I understand also a little of our good Fanny’s mind?”

“On that point I have no authority to speak. I am here only to listen.”

“Listen, then: you have persuaded her that there would be no harm in divorcing my brother — since I believe your religion does not forbid divorce?”

“Madame de Malrive’s religion sanctions divorce in such a case as — ”

“As my brother has furnished? Yes, I have heard that your race is stricter in judging such ecarts. But you must not think,” she added, “that I defend my brother. Fanny must have told you that we have always given her our sympathy.”

“She has let me infer it from her way of speaking of you.”

Madame de Treymes arched her dramatic eyebrows. “How cautious you are! I am so straightforward that I shall have no chance with you.”

“You will be quite safe, unless you are so straightforward that you put me on my guard.”

She met this with a low note of amusement.

“At this rate we shall never get any farther; and in two minutes I must go back to my mother’s visitors. Why should we go on fencing? The situation is really quite simple. Tell me just what you wish to know. I have always been Fanny’s friend, and that disposes me to be yours.”

Durham, during this appeal, had had time to steady his thoughts; and the result of his deliberation was that he said, with a return to his former directness: “Well, then, what I wish to know is, what position your family would take if Madame de Malrive should sue for a divorce.” He added, without giving her time to reply: “I naturally wish to be clear on this point before urging my cause with your sister-in-law.”

Madame de Treymes seemed in no haste to answer; but after a pause of reflection she said, not unkindly: “My poor Fanny might have asked me that herself.”

“I beg you to believe that I am not acting as her spokesman,” Durham hastily interposed. “I merely wish to clear up the situation before speaking to her in my own behalf.”

“You are the most delicate of suitors! But I understand your feeling. Fanny also is extremely delicate: it was a great surprise to us at first. Still, in this case — ” Madame de Treymes paused — “since she has no religious scruples, and she had no difficulty in obtaining a separation, why should she fear any in demanding a divorce?”

“I don’t know that she does: but the mere fact of possible opposition might be enough to alarm the delicacy you have observed in her.”

“Ah — yes: on her boy’s account.”

“Partly, doubtless, on her boy’s account.”

“So that, if my brother objects to a divorce, all he has to do is to announce his objection? But, my dear sir, you are giving your case into my hands!” She flashed an amused smile on him.

“Since you say you are Madame de Malrive’s friend, could there be a better place for it?”

As she turned her eyes on him he seemed to see, under the flitting lightness of her glance, the sudden concentrated expression of the ancestral will. “I am Fanny’s friend, certainly. But with us family considerations are paramount. And our religion forbids divorce.”

“So that, inevitably, your brother will oppose it?”

She rose from her seat, and stood fretting with her slender boot-tip the minute red pebbles of the path.

“I must really go in: my mother will never forgive me for deserting her.”

“But surely you owe me an answer?” Durham protested, rising also.

“In return for your purchases at my stall?”

“No: in return for the trust I have placed in you.”

She mused on this, moving slowly a step or two toward the house.

“Certainly I wish to see you again; you interest me,” she said smiling. “But it is so difficult to arrange. If I were to ask you to come here again, my mother and uncle would be surprised. And at Fanny’s — ”

“Oh, not there!” he exclaimed.

“Where then? Is there any other house where we are likely to meet?”

Durham hesitated; but he was goaded by the flight of the precious minutes. “Not unless you’ll come and dine with me,” he said boldly.

“Dine with you? Au cabaret? Ah, that would be diverting — but impossible!”

“Well, dine with my cousin, then — I have a cousin, an American lady, who lives here,” said Durham, with suddenly-soaring audacity.

She paused with puzzled brows. “An American lady whom I know?”

“By name, at any rate. You send her cards for all your charity bazaars.”

She received the thrust with a laugh. “We do exploit your compatriots.”

“Oh, I don’t think she has ever gone to the bazaars.”

“But she might if I dined with her?”

“Still less, I imagine.”

She reflected on this, and then said with acuteness: “I like that, and I accept — but what is the lady’s name?”

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