Madame de Treymes, by Edith Wharton

IX

The next day Durham left with his family for England, with the intention of not returning till after the divorce should have been pronounced in September.

To say that he left with a quiet heart would be to overstate the case: the fact that he could not communicate to Madame de Malrive the substance of his talk with her sister-in-law still hung upon him uneasily. But of definite apprehensions the lapse of time gradually freed him, and Madame de Malrive’s letters, addressed more frequently to his mother and sisters than to himself, reflected, in their reassuring serenity, the undisturbed course of events.

There was to Durham something peculiarly touching — as of an involuntary confession of almost unbearable loneliness — in the way she had regained, with her re-entry into the clear air of American associations, her own fresh trustfulness of view. Once she had accustomed herself to the surprise of finding her divorce unopposed, she had been, as it now seemed to Durham, in almost too great haste to renounce the habit of weighing motives and calculating chances. It was as though her coming liberation had already freed her from the garb of a mental slavery, as though she could not too soon or too conspicuously cast off the ugly badge of suspicion. The fact that Durham’s cleverness had achieved so easy a victory over forces apparently impregnable, merely raised her estimate of that cleverness to the point of letting her feel that she could rest in it without farther demur. He had even noticed in her, during his few hours in Paris, a tendency to reproach herself for her lack of charity, and a desire, almost as fervent as his own, to expiate it by exaggerated recognition of the disinterestedness of her opponents — if opponents they could still be called. This sudden change in her attitude was peculiarly moving to Durham. He knew she would hazard herself lightly enough wherever her heart called her; but that, with the precious freight of her child’s future weighing her down, she should commit herself so blindly to his hand stirred in him the depths of tenderness. Indeed, had the actual course of events been less auspiciously regular, Madame de Malrive’s confidence would have gone far toward unsettling his own; but with the process of law going on unimpeded, and the other side making no sign of open or covert resistance, the fresh air of good faith gradually swept through the inmost recesses of his distrust.

It was expected that the decision in the suit would be reached by mid-September; and it was arranged that Durham and his family should remain in England till a decent interval after the conclusion of the proceedings. Early in the month, however, it became necessary for Durham to go to France to confer with a business associate who was in Paris for a few days, and on the point of sailing for Cherbourg. The most zealous observance of appearances could hardly forbid Durham’s return for such a purpose; but it had been agreed between himself and Madame de Malrive — who had once more been left alone by Madame de Treymes’ return to her family — that, so close to the fruition of their wishes, they would propitiate fate by a scrupulous adherence to usage, and communicate only, during his hasty visit, by a daily interchange of notes.

The ingenuity of Madame de Malrive’s tenderness found, however, the day after his arrival, a means of tempering their privation. “Christiane,” she wrote, “is passing through Paris on her way from Trouville, and has promised to see you for me if you will call on her today. She thinks there is no reason why you should not go to the Hotel de Malrive, as you will find her there alone, the family having gone to Auvergne. She is really our friend and understands us.”

In obedience to this request — though perhaps inwardly regretting that it should have been made — Durham that afternoon presented himself at the proud old house beyond the Seine. More than ever, in the semi-abandonment of the morte saison, with reduced service, and shutters closed to the silence of the high-walled court, did it strike the American as the incorruptible custodian of old prejudices and strange social survivals. The thought of what he must represent to the almost human consciousness which such old houses seem to possess, made him feel like a barbarian desecrating the silence of a temple of the earlier faith. Not that there was anything venerable in the attestations of the Hotel de Malrive, except in so far as, to a sensitive imagination, every concrete embodiment of a past order of things testifies to real convictions once suffered for. Durham, at any rate, always alive in practical issues to the view of the other side, had enough sympathy left over to spend it sometimes, whimsically, on such perceptions of difference. Today, especially, the assurance of success — the sense of entering like a victorious beleaguerer receiving the keys of the stronghold — disposed him to a sentimental perception of what the other side might have to say for itself, in the language of old portraits, old relics, old usages dumbly outraged by his mere presence.

On the appearance of Madame de Treymes, however, such considerations gave way to the immediate act of wondering how she meant to carry off her share of the adventure. Durham had not forgotten the note on which their last conversation had closed: the lapse of time serving only to give more precision and perspective to the impression he had then received.

Madame de Treymes’ first words implied a recognition of what was in his thoughts.

“It is extraordinary, my receiving you here; but que voulez vous? There was no other place, and I would do more than this for our dear Fanny.”

Durham bowed. “It seems to me that you are also doing a great deal for me.”

“Perhaps you will see later that I have my reasons,” she returned smiling. “But before speaking for myself I must speak for Fanny.”

She signed to him to take a chair near the sofa-corner in which she had installed herself, and he listened in silence while she delivered Madame de Malrive’s message, and her own report of the progress of affairs.

“You have put me still more deeply in your debt,” he said, as she concluded; “I wish you would make the expression of this feeling a large part of the message I send back to Madame de Malrive.”

She brushed this aside with one of her light gestures of deprecation. “Oh, I told you I had my reasons. And since you are here — and the mere sight of you assures me that you are as well as Fanny charged me to find you — with all these preliminaries disposed of, I am going to relieve you, in a small measure, of the weight of your obligation.”

Durham raised his head quickly. “By letting me do something in return?”

She made an assenting motion. “By asking you to answer a question.”

“That seems very little to do.”

“Don’t be so sure! It is never very little to your race.” She leaned back, studying him through half-dropped lids.

“Well, try me,” he protested.

She did not immediately respond; and when she spoke, her first words were explanatory rather than interrogative.

“I want to begin by saying that I believe I once did you an injustice, to the extent of misunderstanding your motive for a certain action.”

Durham’s uneasy flush confessed his recognition of her meaning. “Ah, if we must go back to that — ”

“You withdraw your assent to my request?”

“By no means; but nothing consolatory you can find to say on that point can really make any difference.”

“Will not the difference in my view of you perhaps make a difference in your own?”

She looked at him earnestly, without a trace of irony in her eyes or on her lips. “It is really I who have an amende to make, as I now understand the situation. I once turned to you for help in a painful extremity, and I have only now learned to understand your reasons for refusing to help me.”

“Oh, my reasons — ” groaned Durham.

“I have learned to understand them,” she persisted, “by being so much, lately, with Fanny.”

“But I never told her!” he broke in.

“Exactly. That was what told me. I understood you through her, and through your dealings with her. There she was — the woman you adored and longed to save; and you would not lift a finger to make her yours by means which would have seemed — I see it now — a desecration of your feeling for each other.” She paused, as if to find the exact words for meanings she had never before had occasion to formulate. “It came to me first — a light on your attitude — when I found you had never breathed to her a word of our talk together. She had confidently commissioned you to find a way for her, as the mediaeval lady sent a prayer to her knight to deliver her from captivity, and you came back, confessing you had failed, but never justifying yourself by so much as a hint of the reason why. And when I had lived a little in Fanny’s intimacy — at a moment when circumstances helped to bring us extraordinarily close — I understood why you had done this; why you had let her take what view she pleased of your failure, your passive acceptance of defeat, rather than let her suspect the alternative offered you. You couldn’t, even with my permission, betray to any one a hint of my miserable secret, and you couldn’t, for your life’s happiness, pay the particular price that I asked.” She leaned toward him in the intense, almost childlike, effort at full expression. “Oh, we are of different races, with a different point of honour; but I understand, I see, that you are good people — just simply, courageously good!

She paused, and then said slowly: “Have I understood you? Have I put my hand on your motive?”

Durham sat speechless, subdued by the rush of emotion which her words set free.

“That, you understand, is my question,” she concluded with a faint smile; and he answered hesitatingly: “What can it matter, when the upshot is something I infinitely regret?”

“Having refused me? Don’t!” She spoke with deep seriousness, bending her eyes full on his: “Ah, I have suffered — suffered! But I have learned also — my life has been enlarged. You see how I have understood you both. And that is something I should have been incapable of a few months ago.”

Durham returned her look. “I can’t think that you can ever have been incapable of any generous interpretation.”

She uttered a slight exclamation, which resolved itself into a laugh of self-directed irony.

“If you knew into what language I have always translated life! But that,” she broke off, “is not what you are here to learn.”

“I think,” he returned gravely, “that I am here to learn the measure of Christian charity.”

She threw him a new, odd look. “Ah, no — but to show it!” she exclaimed.

“To show it? And to whom?”

She paused for a moment, and then rejoined, instead of answering: “Do you remember that day I talked with you at Fanny’s? The day after you came back from Italy?”

He made a motion of assent, and she went on: “You asked me then what return I expected for my service to you, as you called it; and I answered, the contemplation of your happiness. Well, do you know what that meant in my old language — the language I was still speaking then? It meant that I knew there was horrible misery in store for you, and that I was waiting to feast my eyes on it: that’s all!”

She had flung out the words with one of her quick bursts of self-abandonment, like a fevered sufferer stripping the bandage from a wound. Durham received them with a face blanching to the pallour of her own.

“What misery do you mean?” he exclaimed.

She leaned forward, laying her hand on his with just such a gesture as she had used to enforce her appeal in Mrs. Boykin’s boudoir. The remembrance made him shrink slightly from her touch, and she drew back with a smile.

“Have you never asked yourself,” she enquired, “why our family consented so readily to a divorce?”

“Yes, often,” he replied, all his unformed fears gathering in a dark throng about him. “But Fanny was so reassured, so convinced that we owed it to your good offices — ”

She broke into a laugh. “My good offices! Will you never, you Americans, learn that we do not act individually in such cases? That we are all obedient to a common principle of authority?”

“Then it was not you —?”

She made an impatient shrugging motion. “Oh, you are too confiding — it is the other side of your beautiful good faith!”

“The side you have taken advantage of, it appears?”

“I— we — all of us. I especially!” she confessed.

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