Madame de Treymes, by Edith Wharton


There was another pause, during which Durham tried to steady himself against the shock of the impending revelation. It was an odd circumstance of the case that, though Madame de Treymes’ avowal of duplicity was fresh in his ears, he did not for a moment believe that she would deceive him again. Whatever passed between them now would go to the root of the matter.

The first thing that passed was the long look they exchanged: searching on his part, tender, sad, undefinable on hers. As the result of it he said: “Why, then, did you consent to the divorce?”

“To get the boy back,” she answered instantly; and while he sat stunned by the unexpectedness of the retort, she went on: “Is it possible you never suspected? It has been our whole thought from the first. Everything was planned with that object.”

He drew a sharp breath of alarm. “But the divorce — how could that give him back to you?”

“It was the only thing that could. We trembled lest the idea should occur to you. But we were reasonably safe, for there has only been one other case of the same kind before the courts.” She leaned back, the sight of his perplexity checking her quick rush of words. “You didn’t know,” she began again, “that in that case, on the remarriage of the mother, the courts instantly restored the child to the father, though he had — well, given as much cause for divorce as my unfortunate brother?”

Durham gave an ironic laugh. “Your French justice takes a grammar and dictionary to understand.”

She smiled. “We understand it — and it isn’t necessary that you should.”

“So it would appear!” he exclaimed bitterly.

“Don’t judge us too harshly — or not, at least, till you have taken the trouble to learn our point of view. You consider the individual — we think only of the family.”

“Why don’t you take care to preserve it, then?”

“Ah, that’s what we do; in spite of every aberration of the individual. And so, when we saw it was impossible that my brother and his wife should live together, we simply transferred our allegiance to the child — we constituted him the family.”

“A precious kindness you did him! If the result is to give him back to his father.”

“That, I admit, is to be deplored; but his father is only a fraction of the whole. What we really do is to give him back to his race, his religion, his true place in the order of things.”

“His mother never tried to deprive him of any of those inestimable advantages!”

Madame de Treymes unclasped her hands with a slight gesture of deprecation.

“Not consciously, perhaps; but silences and reserves can teach so much. His mother has another point of view — ”

“Thank heaven!” Durham interjected.

“Thank heaven for her — yes — perhaps; but it would not have done for the boy.”

Durham squared his shoulders with the sudden resolve of a man breaking through a throng of ugly phantoms.

“You haven’t yet convinced me that it won’t have to do for him. At the time of Madame de Malrive’s separation, the court made no difficulty about giving her the custody of her son; and you must pardon me for reminding you that the father’s unfitness was the reason alleged.”

Madame de Treymes shrugged her shoulders. “And my poor brother, you would add, has not changed; but the circumstances have, and that proves precisely what I have been trying to show you: that, in such cases, the general course of events is considered, rather than the action of any one person.”

“Then why is Madame de Malrive’s action to be considered?”

“Because it breaks up the unity of the family.”

Unity —!” broke from Durham; and Madame de Treymes gently suffered his smile.

“Of the family tradition, I mean: it introduces new elements. You are a new element.”

“Thank heaven!” said Durham again.

She looked at him singularly. “Yes — you may thank heaven. Why isn’t it enough to satisfy Fanny?”

“Why isn’t what enough?”

“Your being, as I say, a new element; taking her so completely into a better air. Why shouldn’t she be content to begin a new life with you, without wanting to keep the boy too?”

Durham stared at her dumbly. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said at length.

“I mean that in her place — ” she broke off, dropping her eyes. “She may have another son — the son of the man she adores.”

Durham rose from his seat and took a quick turn through the room. She sat motionless, following his steps through her lowered lashes, which she raised again slowly as he stood before her.

“Your idea, then, is that I should tell her nothing?” he said.

“Tell her now? But, my poor friend, you would be ruined!”

“Exactly.” He paused. “Then why have you told me?

Under her dark skin he saw the faint colour stealing. “We see things so differently — but can’t you conceive that, after all that has passed, I felt it a kind of loyalty not to leave you in ignorance?”

“And you feel no such loyalty to her?”

“Ah, I leave her to you,” she murmured, looking down again.

Durham continued to stand before her, grappling slowly with his perplexity, which loomed larger and darker as it closed in on him.

“You don’t leave her to me; you take her from me at a stroke! I suppose,” he added painfully, “I ought to thank you for doing it before it’s too late.”

She stared. “I take her from you? I simply prevent your going to her unprepared. Knowing Fanny as I do, it seemed to me necessary that you should find a way in advance — a way of tiding over the first moment. That, of course, is what we had planned that you shouldn’t have. We meant to let you marry, and then — . Oh, there is no question about the result: we are certain of our case — our measures have been taken de loin.” She broke off, as if oppressed by his stricken silence. “You will think me stupid, but my warning you of this is the only return I know how to make for your generosity. I could not bear to have you say afterward that I had deceived you twice.”

“Twice?” He looked at her perplexedly, and her colour rose.

“I deceived you once — that night at your cousin’s, when I tried to get you to bribe me. Even then we meant to consent to the divorce — it was decided the first day that I saw you.” He was silent, and she added, with one of her mocking gestures: “You see from what a milieu you are taking her!”

Durham groaned. “She will never give up her son!”

“How can she help it? After you are married there will be no choice.”

“No — but there is one now.”

Now?” She sprang to her feet, clasping her hands in dismay. “Haven’t I made it clear to you? Haven’t I shown you your course?” She paused, and then brought out with emphasis: “I love Fanny, and I am ready to trust her happiness to you.”

“I shall have nothing to do with her happiness,” he repeated doggedly.

She stood close to him, with a look intently fixed on his face. “Are you afraid?” she asked with one of her mocking flashes.


“Of not being able to make it up to her —?”

Their eyes met, and he returned her look steadily.

“No; if I had the chance, I believe I could.”

“I know you could!” she exclaimed.

“That’s the worst of it,” he said with a cheerless laugh.

“The worst —?”

“Don’t you see that I can’t deceive her? Can’t trick her into marrying me now?”

Madame de Treymes continued to hold his eyes for a puzzled moment after he had spoken; then she broke out despairingly: “Is happiness never more to you, then, than this abstract standard of truth?”

Durham reflected. “I don’t know — it’s an instinct. There doesn’t seem to be any choice.”

“Then I am a miserable wretch for not holding my tongue!”

He shook his head sadly. “That would not have helped me; and it would have been a thousand times worse for her.”

“Nothing can be as bad for her as losing you! Aren’t you moved by seeing her need?”

“Horribly — are not you?” he said, lifting his eyes to hers suddenly.

She started under his look. “You mean, why don’t I help you? Why don’t I use my influence? Ah, if you knew how I have tried!”

“And you are sure that nothing can be done?”

“Nothing, nothing: what arguments can I use? We abhor divorce — we go against our religion in consenting to it — and nothing short of recovering the boy could possibly justify us.”

Durham turned slowly away. “Then there is nothing to be done,” he said, speaking more to himself than to her.

He felt her light touch on his arm. “Wait! There is one thing more — ” She stood close to him, with entreaty written on her small passionate face. “There is one thing more,” she repeated. “And that is, to believe that I am deceiving you again.”

He stopped short with a bewildered stare. “That you are deceiving me — about the boy?”

“Yes — yes; why shouldn’t I? You’re so credulous — the temptation is irresistible.”

“Ah, it would be too easy to find out — ”

“Don’t try, then! Go on as if nothing had happened. I have been lying to you,” she declared with vehemence.

“Do you give me your word of honour?” he rejoined.

“A liar’s? I haven’t any! Take the logic of the facts instead. What reason have you to believe any good of me? And what reason have I to do any to you? Why on earth should I betray my family for your benefit? Ah, don’t let yourself be deceived to the end!” She sparkled up at him, her eyes suffused with mockery; but on the lashes he saw a tear.

He shook his head sadly. “I should first have to find a reason for your deceiving me.”

“Why, I gave it to you long ago. I wanted to punish you — and now I’ve punished you enough.”

“Yes, you’ve punished me enough,” he conceded.

The tear gathered and fell down her thin cheek. “It’s you who are punishing me now. I tell you I’m false to the core. Look back and see what I’ve done to you!”

He stood silent, with his eyes fixed on the ground. Then he took one of her hands and raised it to his lips.

“You poor, good woman!” he said gravely.

Her hand trembled as she drew it away. “You’re going to her — straight from here?”

“Yes — straight from here.”

“To tell her everything — to renounce your hope?”

“That is what it amounts to, I suppose.”

She watched him cross the room and lay his hand on the door.

“Ah, you poor, good man!” she said with a sob.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02