Madame de Treymes, by Edith Wharton


Durham did not take advantage of the permission thus strangely flung at him: of his talk with her sister-in-law he gave to Madame de Malrive only that part which concerned her.

Presenting himself for this purpose, the day after Mrs. Boykin’s dinner, he found his friend alone with her son; and the sight of the child had the effect of dispelling whatever illusive hopes had attended him to the threshold. Even after the governess’s descent upon the scene had left Madame de Malrive and her visitor alone, the little boy’s presence seemed to hover admonishingly between them, reducing to a bare statement of fact Durham’s confession of the total failure of his errand.

Madame de Malrive heard the confession calmly; she had been too prepared for it not to have prepared a countenance to receive it. Her first comment was: “I have never known them to declare themselves so plainly — ” and Durham’s baffled hopes fastened themselves eagerly on the words. Had she not always warned him that there was nothing so misleading as their plainness? And might it not be that, in spite of his advisedness, he had suffered too easy a rebuff? But second thoughts reminded him that the refusal had not been as unconditional as his necessary reservations made it seem in the repetition; and that, furthermore, it was his own act, and not that of his opponents, which had determined it. The impossibility of revealing this to Madame de Malrive only made the difficulty shut in more darkly around him, and in the completeness of his discouragement he scarcely needed her reminder of his promise to regard the subject as closed when once the other side had defined its position.

He was secretly confirmed in this acceptance of his fate by the knowledge that it was really he who had defined the position. Even now that he was alone with Madame de Malrive, and subtly aware of the struggle under her composure, he felt no temptation to abate his stand by a jot. He had not yet formulated a reason for his resistance: he simply went on feeling, more and more strongly with every precious sign of her participation in his unhappiness, that he could neither owe his escape from it to such a transaction, nor suffer her, innocently, to owe hers.

The only mitigating effect of his determination was in an increase of helpless tenderness toward her; so that, when she exclaimed, in answer to his announcement that he meant to leave Paris the next night: “Oh, give me a day or two longer!” he at once resigned himself to saying: “If I can be of the least use, I’ll give you a hundred.”

She answered sadly that all he could do would be to let her feel that he was there — just for a day or two, till she had readjusted herself to the idea of going on in the old way; and on this note of renunciation they parted.

But Durham, however pledged to the passive part, could not long sustain it without rebellion. To “hang round” the shut door of his hopes seemed, after two long days, more than even his passion required of him; and on the third he despatched a note of goodbye to his friend. He was going off for a few weeks, he explained — his mother and sisters wished to be taken to the Italian lakes: but he would return to Paris, and say his real farewell to her, before sailing for America in July.

He had not intended his note to act as an ultimatum: he had no wish to surprise Madame de Malrive into unconsidered surrender. When, almost immediately, his own messenger returned with a reply from her, he even felt a pang of disappointment, a momentary fear lest she should have stooped a little from the high place where his passion had preferred to leave her; but her first words turned his fear into rejoicing.

“Let me see you before you go: something extraordinary has happened,” she wrote.

What had happened, as he heard from her a few hours later — finding her in a tremor of frightened gladness, with her door boldly closed to all the world but himself — was nothing less extraordinary than a visit from Madame de Treymes, who had come, officially delegated by the family, to announce that Monsieur de Malrive had decided not to oppose his wife’s suit for divorce. Durham, at the news, was almost afraid to show himself too amazed; but his small signs of alarm and wonder were swallowed up in the flush of Madame de Malrive’s incredulous joy.

“It’s the long habit, you know, of not believing them — of looking for the truth always in what they don’t say. It took me hours and hours to convince myself that there’s no trick under it, that there can’t be any,” she explained.

“Then you are convinced now?” escaped from Durham; but the shadow of his question lingered no more than the flit of a wing across her face.

“I am convinced because the facts are there to reassure me. Christiane tells me that Monsieur de Malrive has consulted his lawyers, and that they have advised him to free me. Maitre Enguerrand has been instructed to see my lawyer whenever I wish it. They quite understand that I never should have taken the step in face of any opposition on their part — I am so thankful to you for making that perfectly clear to them! — and I suppose this is the return their pride makes to mine. For they can be proud collectively — ” She broke off and added, with happy hands outstretched: “And I owe it all to you — Christiane said it was your talk with her that had convinced them.”

Durham, at this statement, had to repress a fresh sound of amazement; but with her hands in his, and, a moment after, her whole self drawn to him in the first yielding of her lips, doubt perforce gave way to the lover’s happy conviction that such love was after all too strong for the powers of darkness.

It was only when they sat again in the blissful after-calm of their understanding, that he felt the pricking of an unappeased distrust.

“Did Madame de Treymes give you any reason for this change of front?” he risked asking, when he found the distrust was not otherwise to be quelled.

“Oh, yes: just what I’ve said. It was really her admiration of you — of your attitude — your delicacy. She said that at first she hadn’t believed in it: they’re always looking for a hidden motive. And when she found that yours was staring at her in the actual words you said: that you really respected my scruples, and would never, never try to coerce or entrap me — something in her — poor Christiane! — answered to it, she told me, and she wanted to prove to us that she was capable of understanding us too. If you knew her history you’d find it wonderful and pathetic that she can!”

Durham thought he knew enough of it to infer that Madame de Treymes had not been the object of many conscientious scruples on the part of the opposite sex; but this increased rather his sense of the strangeness than of the pathos of her action. Yet Madame de Malrive, whom he had once inwardly taxed with the morbid raising of obstacles, seemed to see none now; and he could only infer that her sister-in-law’s actual words had carried more conviction than reached him in the repetition of them. The mere fact that he had so much to gain by leaving his friend’s faith undisturbed was no doubt stirring his own suspicions to unnatural activity; and this sense gradually reasoned him back into acceptance of her view, as the most normal as well as the pleasantest he could take.

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