Madame de Treymes, by Edith Wharton

VI

On the way home, in the first drop of his exaltation, Durham had said to himself: “But why on earth should Bessy invite her?”

He had, naturally, no very cogent reasons to give Mrs. Boykin in support of his astonishing request, and could only, marvelling at his own growth in duplicity, suffer her to infer that he was really, shamelessly “smitten” with the lady he thus proposed to thrust upon her hospitality. But, to his surprise, Mrs. Boykin hardly gave herself time to pause upon his reasons. They were swallowed up in the fact that Madame de Treymes wished to dine with her, as the lesser luminaries vanish in the blaze of the sun.

“I am not surprised,” she declared, with a faint smile intended to check her husband’s unruly wonder. “I wonder you are, Elmer. Didn’t you tell me that Armillac went out of his way to speak to you the other day at the races? And at Madame d’Alglade’s sale — yes, I went there after all, just for a minute, because I found Katy and Nannie were so anxious to be taken — well, that day I noticed that Madame de Treymes was quite empressee when we went up to her stall. Oh, I didn’t buy anything: I merely waited while the girls chose some lampshades. They thought it would be interesting to take home something painted by a real Marquise, and of course I didn’t tell them that those women never make the things they sell at their stalls. But I repeat I’m not surprised: I suspected that Madame de Treymes had heard of our little dinners. You know they’re really horribly bored in that poky old Faubourg. My poor John, I see now why she’s been making up to you! But on one point I am quite determined, Elmer; whatever you say, I shall not invite the Prince d’Armillac.”

Elmer, as far as Durham could observe, did not say much; but, like his wife, he continued in a state of pleasantly agitated activity till the momentous evening of the dinner.

The festivity in question was restricted in numbers, either owing to the difficulty of securing suitable guests, or from a desire not to have it appear that Madame de Treymes’ hosts attached any special importance to her presence; but the smallness of the company was counterbalanced by the multiplicity of the courses.

The national determination not to be “downed” by the despised foreigner, to show a wealth of material resource obscurely felt to compensate for the possible lack of other distinctions — this resolve had taken, in Mrs. Boykin’s case, the shape — or rather the multiple shapes — of a series of culinary feats, of gastronomic combinations, which would have commanded her deep respect had she seen them on any other table, and which she naturally relied on to produce the same effect on her guest. Whether or not the desired result was achieved, Madame de Treymes’ manner did not specifically declare; but it showed a general complaisance, a charming willingness to be amused, which made Mr. Boykin, for months afterward, allude to her among his compatriots as “an old friend of my wife’s — takes potluck with us, you know. Of course there’s not a word of truth in any of those ridiculous stories.”

It was only when, to Durham’s intense surprise, Mr. Boykin hazarded to his neighbour the regret that they had not been so lucky as to “secure the Prince” — it was then only that the lady showed, not indeed anything so simple and unprepared as embarrassment, but a faint play of wonder, an under-flicker of amusement, as though recognizing that, by some odd law of social compensation, the crudity of the talk might account for the complexity of the dishes.

But Mr. Boykin was tremulously alive to hints, and the conversation at once slid to safer topics, easy generalizations which left Madame de Treymes ample time to explore the table, to use her narrowed gaze like a knife slitting open the unsuspicious personalities about her. Nannie and Katy Durham, who, after much discussion (to which their hostess candidly admitted them), had been included in the feast, were the special objects of Madame de Treymes’ observation. During dinner she ignored in their favour the other carefully-selected guests — the fashionable art-critic, the old Legitimist general, the beauty from the English Embassy, the whole impressive marshalling of Mrs. Boykin’s social resources — and when the men returned to the drawing-room, Durham found her still fanning in his sisters the flame of an easily kindled enthusiasm. Since she could hardly have been held by the intrinsic interest of their converse, the sight gave him another swift intuition of the working of those hidden forces with which Fanny de Malrive felt herself encompassed. But when Madame de Treymes, at his approach, let him see that it was for him she had been reserving herself, he felt that so graceful an impulse needed no special explanation. She had the art of making it seem quite natural that they should move away together to the remotest of Mrs. Boykin’s far-drawn salons, and that there, in a glaring privacy of brocade and ormolu, she should turn to him with a smile which avowed her intentional quest of seclusion.

“Confess that I have done a great deal for you!” she exclaimed, making room for him on a sofa judiciously screened from the observation of the other rooms.

“In coming to dine with my cousin?” he enquired, answering her smile.

“Let us say, in giving you this half hour.”

“For that I am duly grateful — and shall be still more so when I know what it contains for me.”

“Ah, I am not sure. You will not like what I am going to say.”

“Shall I not?” he rejoined, changing colour.

She raised her eyes from the thoughtful contemplation of her painted fan. “You appear to have no idea of the difficulties.”

“Should I have asked your help if I had not had an idea of them?”

“But you are still confident that with my help you can surmount them?”

“I can’t believe you have come here to take that confidence from me?”

She leaned back, smiling at him through her lashes. “And all this I am to do for your beaux yeux?

“No — for your own: that you may see with them what happiness you are conferring.”

“You are extremely clever, and I like you.” She paused, and then brought out with lingering emphasis: “But my family will not hear of a divorce.”

She threw into her voice such an accent of finality that Durham, for the moment, felt himself brought up against an insurmountable barrier; but, almost at once, his fear was mitigated by the conviction that she would not have put herself out so much to say so little.

“When you speak of your family, do you include yourself?” he suggested.

She threw a surprised glance at him. “I thought you understood that I am simply their mouthpiece.”

At this he rose quietly to his feet with a gesture of acceptance. “I have only to thank you, then, for not keeping me longer in suspense.”

His air of wishing to put an immediate end to the conversation seemed to surprise her. “Sit down a moment longer,” she commanded him kindly; and as he leaned against the back of his chair, without appearing to hear her request, she added in a low voice: “I am very sorry for you and Fanny — but you are not the only persons to be pitied.”

She had dropped her light manner as she might have tossed aside her fan, and he was startled at the intimacy of misery to which her look and movement abruptly admitted him. Perhaps no Anglo–Saxon fully understands the fluency in self-revelation which centuries of the confessional have given to the Latin races, and to Durham, at any rate, Madame de Treymes’ sudden avowal gave the shock of a physical abandonment.

“I am so sorry,” he stammered — “is there any way in which I can be of use to you?”

She sat before him with her hands clasped, her eyes fixed on his in a terrible intensity of appeal. “If you would — if you would! Oh, there is nothing I would not do for you. I have still a great deal of influence with my mother, and what my mother commands we all do. I could help you — I am sure I could help you; but not if my own situation were known. And if nothing can be done it must be known in a few days.”

Durham had reseated himself at her side. “Tell me what I can do,” he said in a low tone, forgetting his own preoccupations in his genuine concern for her distress.

She looked up at him through tears. “How dare I? Your race is so cautious, so self-controlled — you have so little indulgence for the extravagances of the heart. And my folly has been incredible — and unrewarded.” She paused, and as Durham waited in a silence which she guessed to be compassionate, she brought out below her breath: “I have lent money — my husband’s, my brother’s — money that was not mine, and now I have nothing to repay it with.”

Durham gazed at her in genuine astonishment. The turn the conversation had taken led quite beyond his uncomplicated experiences with the other sex. She saw his surprise, and extended her hands in deprecation and entreaty. “Alas, what must you think of me? How can I explain my humiliating myself before a stranger? Only by telling you the whole truth — the fact that I am not alone in this disaster, that I could not confess my situation to my family without ruining myself, and involving in my ruin some one who, however undeservedly, has been as dear to me as — as you are to — ”

Durham pushed his chair back with a sharp exclamation.

“Ah, even that does not move you!” she said.

The cry restored him to his senses by the long shaft of light it sent down the dark windings of the situation. He seemed suddenly to know Madame de Treymes as if he had been brought up with her in the inscrutable shades of the Hotel de Malrive.

She, on her side, appeared to have a startled but uncomprehending sense of the fact that his silence was no longer completely sympathetic, that her touch called forth no answering vibration; and she made a desperate clutch at the one chord she could be certain of sounding.

“You have asked a great deal of me — much more than you can guess. Do you mean to give me nothing — not even your sympathy — in return? Is it because you have heard horrors of me? When are they not said of a woman who is married unhappily? Perhaps not in your fortunate country, where she may seek liberation without dishonour. But here —! You who have seen the consequences of our disastrous marriages — you who may yet be the victim of our cruel and abominable system; have you no pity for one who has suffered in the same way, and without the possibility of release?” She paused, laying her hand on his arm with a smile of deprecating irony. “It is not because you are not rich. At such times the crudest way is the shortest, and I don’t pretend to deny that I know I am asking you a trifle. You Americans, when you want a thing, always pay ten times what it is worth, and I am giving you the wonderful chance to get what you most want at a bargain.”

Durham sat silent, her little gloved hand burning his coat-sleeve as if it had been a hot iron. His brain was tingling with the shock of her confession. She wanted money, a great deal of money: that was clear, but it was not the point. She was ready to sell her influence, and he fancied she could be counted on to fulfil her side of the bargain. The fact that he could so trust her seemed only to make her more terrible to him — more supernaturally dauntless and baleful. For what was it that she exacted of him? She had said she must have money to pay her debts; but he knew that was only a pre-text which she scarcely expected him to believe. She wanted the money for some one else; that was what her allusion to a fellow-victim meant. She wanted it to pay the Prince’s gambling debts — it was at that price that Durham was to buy the right to marry Fanny de Malrive.

Once the situation had worked itself out in his mind, he found himself unexpectedly relieved of the necessity of weighing the arguments for and against it. All the traditional forces of his blood were in revolt, and he could only surrender himself to their pressure, without thought of compromise or parley.

He stood up in silence, and the abruptness of his movement caused Madame de Treymes’ hand to slip from his arm.

“You refuse?” she exclaimed; and he answered with a bow: “Only because of the return you propose to make me.”

She stood staring at him, in a perplexity so genuine and profound that he could almost have smiled at it through his disgust.

“Ah, you are all incredible,” she murmured at last, stooping to repossess herself of her fan; and as she moved past him to rejoin the group in the farther room, she added in an incisive undertone: “You are quite at liberty to repeat our conversation to your friend!”

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