Madame de Treymes, by Edith Wharton

VIII

The uneasiness thus temporarily repressed slipped into the final disguise of hoping he should not again meet Madame de Treymes; and in this wish he was seconded by the decision, in which Madame de Malrive concurred, that it would be well for him to leave Paris while the preliminary negotiations were going on. He committed her interests to the best professional care, and his mother, resigning her dream of the lakes, remained to fortify Madame de Malrive by her mild unimaginative view of the transaction, as an uncomfortable but commonplace necessity, like house-cleaning or dentistry. Mrs. Durham would doubtless have preferred that her only son, even with his hair turning gray, should have chosen a Fanny Frisbee rather than a Fanny de Malrive; but it was a part of her acceptance of life on a general basis of innocence and kindliness, that she entered generously into his dream of rescue and renewal, and devoted herself without after-thought to keeping up Fanny’s courage with so little to spare for herself.

The process, the lawyers declared, would not be a long one, since Monsieur de Malrive’s acquiescence reduced it to a formality; and when, at the end of June, Durham returned from Italy with Katy and Nannie, there seemed no reason why he should not stop in Paris long enough to learn what progress had been made.

But before he could learn this he was to hear, on entering Madame de Malrive’s presence, news more immediate if less personal. He found her, in spite of her gladness in his return, so evidently preoccupied and distressed that his first thought was one of fear for their own future. But she read and dispelled this by saying, before he could put his question: “Poor Christiane is here. She is very unhappy. You have seen in the papers —?”

“I have seen no papers since we left Turin. What has happened?”

“The Prince d’Armillac has come to grief. There has been some terrible scandal about money and he has been obliged to leave France to escape arrest.”

“And Madame de Treymes has left her husband?”

“Ah, no, poor creature: they don’t leave their husbands — they can’t. But de Treymes has gone down to their place in Brittany, and as my mother-in-law is with another daughter in Auvergne, Christiane came here for a few days. With me, you see, she need not pretend — she can cry her eyes out.”

“And that is what she is doing?”

It was so unlike his conception of the way in which, under the most adverse circumstances, Madame de Treymes would be likely to occupy her time, that Durham was conscious of a note of scepticism in his query.

“Poor thing — if you saw her you would feel nothing but pity. She is suffering so horribly that I reproach myself for being happy under the same roof.”

Durham met this with a tender pressure of her hand; then he said, after a pause of reflection: “I should like to see her.”

He hardly knew what prompted him to utter the wish, unless it were a sudden stir of compunction at the memory of his own dealings with Madame de Treymes. Had he not sacrificed the poor creature to a purely fantastic conception of conduct? She had said that she knew she was asking a trifle of him; and the fact that, materially, it would have been a trifle, had seemed at the moment only an added reason for steeling himself in his moral resistance to it. But now that he had gained his point — and through her own generosity, as it still appeared — the largeness of her attitude made his own seem cramped and petty. Since conduct, in the last resort, must be judged by its enlarging or diminishing effect on character, might it not be that the zealous weighing of the moral anise and cummin was less important than the unconsidered lavishing of the precious ointment? At any rate, he could enjoy no peace of mind under the burden of Madame de Treymes’ magnanimity, and when he had assured himself that his own affairs were progressing favourably, he once more, at the risk of surprising his betrothed, brought up the possibility of seeing her relative.

Madame de Malrive evinced no surprise. “It is natural, knowing what she has done for us, that you should want to show her your sympathy. The difficulty is that it is just the one thing you can’t show her. You can thank her, of course, for ourselves, but even that at the moment — ”

“Would seem brutal? Yes, I recognize that I should have to choose my words,” he admitted, guiltily conscious that his capability of dealing with Madame de Treymes extended far beyond her sister-in-law’s conjecture.

Madame de Malrive still hesitated. “I can tell her; and when you come back tomorrow — ”

It had been decided that, in the interests of discretion — the interests, in other words, of the poor little future Marquis de Malrive — Durham was to remain but two days in Paris, withdrawing then with his family till the conclusion of the divorce proceedings permitted him to return in the acknowledged character of Madame de Malrive’s future husband. Even on this occasion, he had not come to her alone; Nannie Durham, in the adjoining room, was chatting conspicuously with the little Marquis, whom she could with difficulty be restrained from teaching to call her “Aunt Nannie.” Durham thought her voice had risen unduly once or twice during his visit, and when, on taking leave, he went to summon her from the inner room, he found the higher note of ecstasy had been evoked by the appearance of Madame de Treymes, and that the little boy, himself absorbed in a new toy of Durham’s bringing, was being bent over by an actual as well as a potential aunt.

Madame de Treymes raised herself with a slight start at Durham’s approach: she had her hat on, and had evidently paused a moment on her way out to speak with Nannie, without expecting to be surprised by her sister-in-law’s other visitor. But her surprises never wore the awkward form of embarrassment, and she smiled beautifully on Durham as he took her extended hand.

The smile was made the more appealing by the way in which it lit up the ruin of her small dark face, which looked seared and hollowed as by a flame that might have spread over it from her fevered eyes. Durham, accustomed to the pale inward grief of the inexpressive races, was positively startled by the way in which she seemed to have been openly stretched on the pyre; he almost felt an indelicacy in the ravages so tragically confessed.

The sight caused an involuntary readjustment of his whole view of the situation, and made him, as far as his own share in it went, more than ever inclined to extremities of self-disgust. With him such sensations required, for his own relief, some immediate penitential escape, and as Madame de Treymes turned toward the door he addressed a glance of entreaty to his betrothed.

Madame de Malrive, whose intelligence could be counted on at such moments, responded by laying a detaining hand on her sister-in-law’s arm.

“Dear Christiane, may I leave Mr. Durham in your charge for two minutes? I have promised Nannie that she shall see the boy put to bed.”

Madame de Treymes made no audible response to this request, but when the door had closed on the other ladies she said, looking quietly at Durham: “I don’t think that, in this house, your time will hang so heavy that you need my help in supporting it.”

Durham met her glance frankly. “It was not for that reason that Madame de Malrive asked you to remain with me.”

“Why, then? Surely not in the interest of preserving appearances, since she is safely upstairs with your sister?”

“No; but simply because I asked her to. I told her I wanted to speak to you.”

“How you arrange things! And what reason can you have for wanting to speak to me?”

He paused for a moment. “Can’t you imagine? The desire to thank you for what you have done.”

She stirred restlessly, turning to adjust her hat before the glass above the mantelpiece.

“Oh, as for what I have done —!”

“Don’t speak as if you regretted it,” he interposed.

She turned back to him with a flash of laughter lighting up the haggardness of her face. “Regret working for the happiness of two such excellent persons? Can’t you fancy what a charming change it is for me to do something so innocent and beneficent?”

He moved across the room and went up to her, drawing down the hand which still flitted experimentally about her hat.

“Don’t talk in that way, however much one of the persons of whom you speak may have deserved it.”

“One of the persons? Do you mean me?”

He released her hand, but continued to face her resolutely. “I mean myself, as you know. You have been generous — extraordinarily generous.”

“Ah, but I was doing good in a good cause. You have made me see that there is a distinction.”

He flushed to the forehead. “I am here to let you say whatever you choose to me.”

“Whatever I choose?” She made a slight gesture of deprecation. “Has it never occurred to you that I may conceivably choose to say nothing?”

Durham paused, conscious of the increasing difficulty of the advance. She met him, parried him, at every turn: he had to take his baffled purpose back to another point of attack.

“Quite conceivably,” he said: “so much so that I am aware I must make the most of this opportunity, because I am not likely to get another.”

“But what remains of your opportunity, if it isn’t one to me?”

“It still remains, for me, an occasion to abase myself — ” He broke off, conscious of a grossness of allusion that seemed, on a closer approach, the real obstacle to full expression. But the moments were flying, and for his self-esteem’s sake he must find some way of making her share the burden of his repentance.

“There is only one thinkable pretext for detaining you: it is that I may still show my sense of what you have done for me.”

Madame de Treymes, who had moved toward the door, paused at this and faced him, resting her thin brown hands on a slender sofa-back.

“How do you propose to show that sense?” she enquired.

Durham coloured still more deeply: he saw that she was determined to save her pride by making what he had to say of the utmost difficulty. Well! he would let his expiation take that form, then — it was as if her slender hands held out to him the fool’s cap he was condemned to press down on his own ears.

“By offering in return — in any form, and to the utmost — any service you are forgiving enough to ask of me.”

She received this with a low sound of laughter that scarcely rose to her lips. “You are princely. But, my dear sir, does it not occur to you that I may, meanwhile, have taken my own way of repaying myself for any service I have been fortunate enough to render you?”

Durham, at the question, or still more, perhaps, at the tone in which it was put, felt, through his compunction, a vague faint chill of apprehension. Was she threatening him or only mocking him? Or was this barbed swiftness of retort only the wounded creature’s way of defending the privacy of her own pain? He looked at her again, and read his answer in the last conjecture.

“I don’t know how you can have repaid yourself for anything so disinterested — but I am sure, at least, that you have given me no chance of recognizing, ever so slightly, what you have done.”

She shook her head, with the flicker of a smile on her melancholy lips. “Don’t be too sure! You have given me a chance and I have taken it — taken it to the full. So fully,” she continued, keeping her eyes fixed on his, “that if I were to accept any farther service you might choose to offer, I should simply be robbing you — robbing you shamelessly.” She paused, and added in an undefinable voice: “I was entitled, wasn’t I, to take something in return for the service I had the happiness of doing you?”

Durham could not tell whether the irony of her tone was self-directed or addressed to himself — perhaps it comprehended them both. At any rate, he chose to overlook his own share in it in replying earnestly: “So much so, that I can’t see how you can have left me nothing to add to what you say you have taken.”

“Ah, but you don’t know what that is!” She continued to smile, elusively, ambiguously. “And what’s more, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“How do you know?” he rejoined.

“You didn’t believe me once before; and this is so much more incredible.”

He took the taunt full in the face. “I shall go away unhappy unless you tell me — but then perhaps I have deserved to,” he confessed.

She shook her head again, advancing toward the door with the evident intention of bringing their conference to a close; but on the threshold she paused to launch her reply.

“I can’t send you away unhappy, since it is in the contemplation of your happiness that I have found my reward.”

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