Chapter 1............................................................................................................................. 3
Chapter 2............................................................................................................................. 7
Chapter 3........................................................................................................................... 11
Chapter 4........................................................................................................................... 16
Chapter 5........................................................................................................................... 22
Chapter 6........................................................................................................................... 29
Chapter 7........................................................................................................................... 35
Chapter 8........................................................................................................................... 43
Chapter 9........................................................................................................................... 50
Chapter 10......................................................................................................................... 58
Chapter 11......................................................................................................................... 68
Chapter 12......................................................................................................................... 77
Chapter 13......................................................................................................................... 83
Chapter 14......................................................................................................................... 90
Chapter 15......................................................................................................................... 98
Chapter 16....................................................................................................................... 104
Chapter 17....................................................................................................................... 111
Chapter 18....................................................................................................................... 116
Chapter 19....................................................................................................................... 122
Chapter 20....................................................................................................................... 127
Chapter 21....................................................................................................................... 132
Chapter 22....................................................................................................................... 139
Chapter 23....................................................................................................................... 145
Chapter 24....................................................................................................................... 152
Chapter 25....................................................................................................................... 162
Chapter 26....................................................................................................................... 168
Chapter 27....................................................................................................................... 178
In my opinion, it is impossible to create characters until one has spent a long time in studying men, as it is impossible to speak a language until it has been seriously acquired. Not being old enough to invent, I content myself with narrating, and I beg the reader to assure himself of the truth of a story in which all the characters, with the exception of the heroine, are still alive. Eye-witnesses of the greater part of the facts which I have collected are to be found in Paris, and I might call upon them to confirm me if my testimony is not enough. And, thanks to a particular circumstance, I alone can write these things, for I alone am able to give the final details, without which it would have been impossible to make the story at once interesting and complete.
This is how these details came to my knowledge. On the 12th of March, 1847, I saw in the Rue Lafitte a great yellow placard announcing a sale of furniture and curiosities. The sale was to take place on account of the death of the owner. The owner's name was not mentioned, but the sale was to be held at 9, Rue d'Antin, on the 16th, from 12 to 5. The placard further announced that the rooms and furniture could be seen on the 13th and 14th.
I have always been very fond of curiosities, and I made up my mind not to miss the occasion, if not of buying some, at all events of seeing them. Next day I called at 9, Rue d'Antin.
It was early in the day, and yet there were already a number of visitors, both men and women, and the women, though they were dressed in cashmere and velvet, and had their carriages waiting for them at the door, gazed with astonishment and admiration at the luxury which they saw before them.
I was not long in discovering the reason of this astonishment and admiration, for, having begun to examine things a little carefully, I discovered without difficulty that I was in the house of a kept woman. Now, if there is one thing which women in society would like to see (and there were society women there), it is the home of those women whose carriages splash their own carriages day by day, who, like them, side by side with them, have their boxes at the Opera and at the Italiens, and who parade in Paris the opulent insolence of their beauty, their diamonds, and their scandal.
This one was dead, so the most virtuous of women could enter even her bedroom. Death had purified the air of this abode of splendid foulness, and if more excuse were needed, they had the excuse that they had merely come to a sale, they knew not whose. They had read the placards, they wished to see what the placards had announced, and to make their choice beforehand. What could be more natural? Yet, all the same, in the midst of all these beautiful things, they could not help looking about for some traces of this courtesan's life, of which they had heard, no doubt, strange enough stories.
Unfortunately the mystery had vanished with the goddess, and, for all their endeavours, they discovered only what was on sale since the owner's decease, and nothing of what had been on sale during her lifetime. For the rest, there were plenty of things worth buying. The furniture was superb; there were rosewood and buhl cabinets and tables, Sevres and Chinese vases, Saxe statuettes, satin, velvet, lace; there was nothing lacking.
I sauntered through the rooms, following the inquisitive ladies of distinction. They entered a room with Persian hangings, and I was just going to enter in turn, when they came out again almost immediately, smiling, and as if ashamed of their own curiosity. I was all the more eager to see the room. It was the dressing-room, laid out with all the articles of toilet, in which the dead woman's extravagance seemed to be seen at its height.
On a large table against the wall, a table three feet in width and six in length, glittered all the treasures of Aucoc and Odiot. It was a magnificent collection, and there was not one of those thousand little things so necessary to the toilet of a woman of the kind which was not in gold or silver. Such a collection could only have been got together little by little, and the same lover had certainly not begun and ended it.
Not being shocked at the sight of a kept woman's dressing-room, I amused myself with examining every detail, and I discovered that these magnificently chiselled objects bore different initials and different coronets. I looked at one after another, each recalling a separate shame, and I said that God had been merciful to the poor child, in not having left her to pay the ordinary penalty, but rather to die in the midst of her beauty and luxury, before the coming of old age, the courtesan's first death.
Is there anything sadder in the world than the old age of vice, especially in woman? She preserves no dignity, she inspires no interest. The everlasting repentance, not of the evil ways followed, but of the plans that have miscarried, the money that has been spent in vain, is as saddening a thing as one can well meet with. I knew an aged woman who had once been "gay," whose only link with the past was a daughter almost as beautiful as she herself had been. This poor creature to whom her mother had never said, "You are my child," except to bid her nourish her old age as she herself had nourished her youth, was called Louise, and, being obedient to her mother, she abandoned herself without volition, without passion, without pleasure, as she would have worked at any other profession that might have been taught her.
The constant sight of dissipation, precocious dissipation, in addition to her constant sickly state, had extinguished in her mind all the knowledge of good and evil that God had perhaps given her, but that no one had ever thought of developing. I shall always remember her, as she passed along the boulevards almost every day at the same hour, accompanied by her mother as assiduously as a real mother might have accompanied her daughter. I was very young then, and ready to accept for myself the easy morality of the age. I remember, however, the contempt and disgust which awoke in me at the sight of this scandalous chaperoning. Her face, too, was inexpressibly virginal in its expression of innocence and of melancholy suffering. She was like a figure of Resignation.
One day the girl's face was transfigured. In the midst of all the debauches mapped out by her mother, it seemed to her as if God had left over for her one happiness. And why indeed should God, who had made her without strength, have left her without consolation, under the sorrowful burden of her life? One day, then, she realized that she was to have a child, and all that remained to her of chastity leaped for joy. The soul has strange refuges. Louise ran to tell the good news to her mother. It is a shameful thing to speak of, but we are not telling tales of pleasant sins; we are telling of true facts, which it would be better, no doubt, to pass over in silence, if we did not believe that it is needful from time to time to reveal the martyrdom of those who are condemned without bearing, scorned without judging; shameful it is, but this mother answered the daughter that they had already scarce enough for two, and would certainly not have enough for three; that such children are useless, and a lying-in is so much time lost.
Next day a midwife, of whom all we will say is that she was a friend of the mother, visited Louise, who remained in bed for a few days, and then got up paler and feebler than before.
Three months afterward a man took pity on her and tried to heal her, morally and physically; but the last shock had been too violent, and Louise died of it. The mother still lives; how? God knows.
This story returned to my mind while I looked at the silver toilet things, and a certain space of time must have elapsed during these reflections, for no one was left in the room but myself and an attendant, who, standing near the door, was carefully watching me to see that I did not pocket anything.I went up to the man, to whom I was causing so much anxiety. "Sir," I said, "can you tell me the name of the person who formerly lived here?" "Mademoiselle Marguerite Gautier." I knew her by name and by sight. "What!" I said to the attendant; "Marguerite Gautier is dead?" "Yes, sir." "When did she die?" "Three weeks ago, I believe." "And why are the rooms on view?" "The creditors believe that it will send up the prices. People can see beforehand the effect of the things; you see that induces them to buy." "She was in debt, then?" "To any extent, sir." "But the sale will cover it?" "And more too." "Who will get what remains over?" "Her family." "She had a family?" "It seems so." "Thanks." The attendant, reassured as to my intentions, touched his hat, and I went out.
"Poor girl!" I said to myself as I returned home; "she must have had a sad death, for, in her world, one has friends only when one is perfectly well." And in spite of myself I began to feel melancholy over the fate of Marguerite Gautier.
It will seem absurd to many people, but I have an unbounded sympathy for women of this kind, and I do not think it necessary to apologize for such sympathy.
One day, as I was going to the Prefecture for a passport, I saw in one of the neighbouring streets a poor girl who was being marched along by two policemen. I do not know what was the matter. All I know is that she was weeping bitterly as she kissed an infant only a few months old, from whom her arrest was to separate her. Since that day I have never dared to despise a woman at first sight.
The sale was to take place on the 16th. A day's interval had been left between the visiting days and the sale, in order to give time for taking down the hangings, curtains, etc. I had just returned from abroad. It was natural that I had not heard of Marguerite's death among the pieces of news which one's friends always tell on returning after an absence. Marguerite was a pretty woman; but though the life of such women makes sensation enough, their death makes very little. They are suns which set as they rose, unobserved. Their death, when they die young, is heard of by all their lovers at the same moment, for in Paris almost all the lovers of a well-known woman are friends. A few recollections are exchanged, and everybody's life goes on as if the incident had never occurred, without so much as a tear.
Nowadays, at twenty-five, tears have become so rare a thing that they are not to be squandered indiscriminately. It is the most that can be expected if the parents who pay for being wept over are wept over in return for the price they pay. As for me, though my initials did not occur on any of Marguerite's belongings, that instinctive indulgence, that natural pity that I have already confessed, set me thinking over her death, more perhaps than it was worth thinking over. I remembered having often met Marguerite in the Bois, where she went regularly every day in a little blue coupe drawn by two magnificent bays, and I had noticed in her a distinction quite apart from other women of her kind, a distinction which was enhanced by a really exceptional beauty.
These unfortunate creatures whenever they go out are always accompanied by somebody or other. As no man cares to make himself conspicuous by being seen in their company, and as they are afraid of solitude, they take with them either those who are not well enough off to have a carriage, or one or another of those elegant, ancient ladies, whose elegance is a little inexplicable, and to whom one can always go for information in regard to the women whom they accompany.
In Marguerite's case it was quite different. She was always alone when she drove in the Champs-Elysees, lying back in her carriage as much as possible, dressed in furs in winter, and in summer wearing very simple dresses; and though she often passed people whom she knew, her smile, when she chose to smile, was seen only by them, and a duchess might have smiled in just such a manner. She did not drive to and fro like the others, from the Rond-Point to the end of the Champs-Elysees. She drove straight to the Bois. There she left her carriage, walked for an hour, returned to her carriage, and drove rapidly home. All these circumstances which I had so often witnessed came back to my memory, and I regretted her death as one might regret the destruction of a beautiful work of art.
It was impossible to see more charm in beauty than in that of Marguerite. Excessively tall and thin, she had in the fullest degree the art of repairing this oversight of Nature by the mere arrangement of the things she wore. Her cashmere reached to the ground, and showed on each side the large flounces of a silk dress, and the heavy muff which she held pressed against her bosom was surrounded by such cunningly arranged folds that the eye, however exacting, could find no fault with the contour of the lines. Her head, a marvel, was the object of the most coquettish care. It was small, and her mother, as Musset would say, seemed to have made it so in order to make it with care. Set, in an oval of indescribable grace, two black eyes, surmounted by eyebrows of so pure a curve that it seemed as if painted; veil these eyes with lovely lashes, which, when drooped, cast their shadow on the rosy hue of the cheeks; trace a delicate, straight nose, the nostrils a little open, in an ardent aspiration toward the life of the senses; design a regular mouth, with lips parted graciously over teeth as white as milk; colour the skin with the down of a peach that no hand has touched, and you will have the general aspect of that charming countenance. The hair, black as jet, waving naturally or not, was parted on the forehead in two large folds and draped back over the head, leaving in sight just the tip of the ears, in which there glittered two diamonds, worth four to five thousand francs each. How it was that her ardent life had left on Marguerite's face the virginal, almost childlike expression, which characterized it, is a problem which we can but state, without attempting to solve it.
Marguerite had a marvellous portrait of herself, by Vidal, the only man whose pencil could do her justice. I had this portrait by me for a few days after her death, and the likeness was so astonishing that it has helped to refresh my memory in regard to some points which I might not otherwise have remembered. Some among the details of this chapter did not reach me until later, but I write them here so as not to be obliged to return to them when the story itself has begun.
Marguerite was always present at every first night, and passed every evening either at the theatre or the ball. Whenever there was a new piece she was certain to be seen, and she invariably had three things with her on the ledge of her ground-floor box: her opera-glass, a bag of sweets, and a bouquet of camellias. For twenty-five days of the month the camellias were white, and for five they were red; no one ever knew the reason of this change of colour, which I mention though I can not explain it; it was noticed both by her friends and by the habitue's of the theatres to which she most often went. She was never seen with any flowers but camellias. At the florist's, Madame Barjon's, she had come to be called "the Lady of the Camellias," and the name stuck to her.
Like all those who move in a certain set in Paris, I knew that Marguerite had lived with some of the most fashionable young men in society, that she spoke of it openly, and that they themselves boasted of it; so that all seemed equally pleased with one another. Nevertheless, for about three years, after a visit to Bagnees, she was said to be living with an old duke, a foreigner, enormously rich, who had tried to remove her as far as possible from her former life, and, as it seemed, entirely to her own satisfaction.
This is what I was told on the subject. In the spring of 1847 Marguerite was so ill that the doctors ordered her to take the waters, and she went to Bagneres. Among the invalids was the daughter of this duke; she was not only suffering from the same complaint, but she was so like Marguerite in appearance that they might have been taken for sisters; the young duchess was in the last stage of consumption, and a few days after Marguerite's arrival she died. One morning, the duke, who had remained at Bagneres to be near the soil that had buried a part of his heart, caught sight of Marguerite at a turn of the road. He seemed to see the shadow of his child, and going up to her, he took her hands, embraced and wept over her, and without even asking her who she was, begged her to let him love in her the living image of his dead child. Marguerite, alone at Bagneres with her maid, and not being in any fear of compromising herself, granted the duke's request. Some people who knew her, happening to be at Bagneres, took upon themselves to explain Mademoiselle Gautier's true position to the duke. It was a blow to the old man, for the resemblance with his daughter was ended in one direction, but it was too late. She had become a necessity to his heart, his only pretext, his only excuse, for living. He made no reproaches, he had indeed no right to do so, but he asked her if she felt herself capable of changing her mode of life, offering her in return for the sacrifice every compensation that she could desire. She consented.
It must be said that Marguerite was just then very ill. The past seemed to her sensitive nature as if it were one of the main causes of her illness, and a sort of superstition led her to hope that God would restore to her both health and beauty in return for her repentance and conversion. By the end of the summer, the waters, sleep, the natural fatigue of long walks, had indeed more or less restored her health. The duke accompanied her to Paris, where he continued to see her as he had done at Bagneres.
This liaison, whose motive and origin were quite unknown, caused a great sensation, for the duke, already known for his immense fortune, now became known for his prodigality. All this was set down to the debauchery of a rich old man, and everything was believed except the truth. The father's sentiment for Marguerite had, in truth, so pure a cause that anything but a communion of hearts would have seemed to him a kind of incest, and he had never spoken to her a word which his daughter might not have heard.
Far be it from me to make out our heroine to be anything but what she was. As long as she remained at Bagneres, the promise she had made to the duke had not been hard to keep, and she had kept it; but, once back in Paris, it seemed to her, accustomed to a life of dissipation, of balls, of orgies, as if the solitude, only interrupted by the duke's stated visits, would kill her with boredom, and the hot breath of her old life came back across her head and heart.
We must add that Marguerite had returned more beautiful than she had ever been; she was but twenty, and her malady, sleeping but not subdued, continued to give her those feverish desires which are almost always the result of diseases of the chest.
It was a great grief to the duke when his friends, always on the lookout for some scandal on the part of the woman with whom, it seemed to them, he was compromising himself, came to tell him, indeed to prove to him, that at times when she was sure of not seeing him she received other visits, and that these visits were often prolonged till the following day. On being questioned, Marguerite admitted everything to the duke, and advised him, without arriere-pensee, to concern himself with her no longer, for she felt incapable of carrying out what she had undertaken, and she did not wish to go on accepting benefits from a man whom she was deceiving. The duke did not return for a week; it was all he could do, and on the eighth day he came to beg Marguerite to let him still visit her, promising that he would take her as she was, so long as he might see her, and swearing that he would never utter a reproach against her, not though he were to die of it.
This, then, was the state of things three months after Marguerite's return; that is to say, in November or December, 1842.
At one o'clock on the 16th I went to the Rue d'Antin. The voice of the auctioneer could be heard from the outer door. The rooms were crowded with people. There were all the celebrities of the most elegant impropriety, furtively examined by certain great ladies who had again seized the opportunity of the sale in order to be able to see, close at hand, women whom they might never have another occasion of meeting, and whom they envied perhaps in secret for their easy pleasures. The Duchess of F. elbowed Mlle. A., one of the most melancholy examples of our modern courtesan; the Marquis de T. hesitated over a piece of furniture the price of which was being run high by Mme. D., the most elegant and famous adulteress of our time; the Duke of Y., who in Madrid is supposed to be ruining himself in Paris, and in Paris to be ruining himself in Madrid, and who, as a matter of fact, never even reaches the limit of his income, talked with Mme. M., one of our wittiest story-tellers, who from time to time writes what she says and signs what she writes, while at the same time he exchanged confidential glances with Mme. de N., a fair ornament of the Champs-Elysees, almost always dressed in pink or blue, and driving two big black horses which Tony had sold her for 10,000 francs, and for which she had paid, after her fashion; finally, Mlle. R., who makes by her mere talent twice what the women of the world make by their dot and three times as much as the others make by their amours, had come, in spite of the cold, to make some purchases, and was not the least looked at among the crowd.
We might cite the initials of many more of those who found themselves, not without some mutual surprise, side by side in one room. But we fear to weary the reader. We will only add that everyone was in the highest spirits, and that many of those present had known the dead woman, and seemed quite oblivious of the fact. There was a sound of loud laughter; the auctioneers shouted at the top of their voices; the dealers who had filled the benches in front of the auction table tried in vain to obtain silence, in order to transact their business in peace. Never was there a noisier or a more varied gathering.
I slipped quietly into the midst of this tumult, sad to think of when one remembered that the poor creature whose goods were being sold to pay her debts had died in the next room. Having come rather to examine than to buy, I watched the faces of the auctioneers, noticing how they beamed with delight whenever anything reached a price beyond their expectations. Honest creatures, who had speculated upon this woman's prostitution, who had gained their hundred per cent out of her, who had plagued with their writs the last moments of her life, and who came now after her death to gather in at once the fruits of their dishonourable calculations and the interest on their shameful credit, How wise were the ancients in having only one God for traders and robbers! Dresses, cashmeres, jewels, were sold with incredible rapidity. There was nothing that I cared for, and I still waited. All at once I heard: "A volume, beautifully bound, gilt-edged, entitled Manon Lescaut. There is something written on the first page. Ten francs.""Twelve," said a voice after a longish silence. "Fifteen," I said. Why? I did not know. Doubtless for the something written. "Fifteen," repeated the auctioneer. "Thirty," said the first bidder in a tone which seemed to defy further competition. It had now become a struggle. "Thirty-five," I cried in the same tone. "Forty." "Fifty." "Sixty." "A hundred."
If I had wished to make a sensation I should certainly have succeeded, for a profound silence had ensued, and people gazed at me as if to see what sort of a person it was, who seemed to be so determined to possess the volume.
The accent which I had given to my last word seemed to convince my adversary; he preferred to abandon a conflict which could only have resulted in making me pay ten times its price for the volume, and, bowing, he said very gracefully, though indeed a little late:"I give way, sir." Nothing more being offered, the book was assigned to me.
As I was afraid of some new fit of obstinacy, which my amour propre might have sustained somewhat better than my purse, I wrote down my name, had the book put on one side, and went out. I must have given considerable food for reflection to the witnesses of this scene, who would nodoubt ask themselves what my purpose could have been in paying a hundred francs for a book which I could have had anywhere for ten, or, at the outside, fifteen.
An hour after, I sent for my purchase. On the first page was written in ink, in an elegant hand, an inscription on the part of the giver. It consisted of these words:
What was the meaning of the word Humility? Was Manon to recognise in Marguerite, in the opinion of M. Armand Duval, her superior in vice or in affection? The second interpretation seemed the more probable, for the first would have been an impertinent piece of plain speaking which Marguerite, whatever her opinion of herself, would never have accepted.I went out again, and thought no more of the book until at night, when I was going to bed.
Manon Lescaut is a touching story. I know every detail of it, and yet whenever I come across the volume the same sympathy always draws me to it; I open it, and for the hundredth time I live over again with the heroine of the Abbe Prevost. Now this heroine is so true to life that I feel as if I had known her; and thus the sort of comparison between her and Marguerite gave me an unusual inclination to read it, and my indulgence passed into pity, almost into a kind of love for the poor girl to whom I owed the volume. Manon died in the desert, it is true, but in the arms of the man who loved her with the whole energy of his soul; who, when she was dead, dug a grave for her, and watered it with his tears, and buried his heart in it; while Marguerite, a sinner like Manon, and perhaps converted like her, had died in a sumptuous bed (it seemed, after what I had seen, the bed of her past), but in that desert of the heart, a more barren, a vaster, a more pitiless desert than that in which Manon had found her last resting-place.
Marguerite, in fact, as I had found from some friends who knew of the last circumstances of her life, had not a single real friend by her bedside during the two months of her long and painful agony.
Then from Manon and Marguerite my mind wandered to those whom I knew, and whom I saw singing along the way which led to just such another death. Poor souls! if it is not right to love them, is it not well to pity them? You pity the blind man who has never seen the daylight, the deaf who has never heard the harmonies of nature, the dumb who has never found a voice for his soul, and, under a false cloak of shame, you will not pity this blindness of heart, this deafness of soul, this dumbness of conscience, which sets the poor afflicted creature beside herself and makes her, in spite of herself, incapable of seeing what is good, of bearing the Lord, and of speaking the pure language of love and faith.
Hugo has written Marion Delorme, Musset has written Bernerette, Alexandre Dumas has written Fernande, the thinkers and poets of all time have brought to the courtesan the offering of their pity, and at times a great man has rehabilitated them with his love and even with his name. If I insist on this point, it is because many among those who have begun to read me will be ready to throw down a book in which they will fear to find an apology for vice and prostitution; and the author's age will do something, no doubt, to increase this fear. Let me undeceive those who think thus, and let them go on reading, if nothing but such a fear hinders them.
I am quite simply convinced of a certain principle, which is: For the woman whose education has not taught her what is right, God almost always opens two ways which lead thither the ways of sorrow and of love. They are hard; those who walk in them walk with bleeding feet and torn hands, but they also leave the trappings of vice upon the thorns of the wayside, and reach the journey's end in a nakedness which is not shameful in the sight of the Lord.
Those who meet these bold travellers ought to succour them, and to tell all that they have met them, for in so doing they point out the way. It is not a question of setting at the outset of life two sign-posts, one bearing the inscription "The Right Way," the other the inscription "The Wrong Way," and of saying to those who come there, "Choose." One must needs, like Christ, point out the ways which lead from the second road to the first, to those who have been easily led astray; and it is needful that the beginning of these ways should not be too painful nor appear too impenetrable.
Here is Christianity with its marvellous parable of the Prodigal Son to teach us indulgence and pardon. Jesus was full of love for souls wounded by the passions of men; he loved to bind up their wounds and to find in those very wounds the balm which should heal them. Thus he said to the Magdalen: "Much shall be forgiven thee because thou hast loved much," a sublimity of pardon which can only have called forth a sublime faith.
Why do we make ourselves more strict than Christ? Why, holding obstinately to the opinions of the world, which hardens itself in order that it may be thought strong, do we reject, as it rejects, souls bleeding at wounds by which, like a sick man's bad blood, the evil of their past may be healed, if only a friendly hand is stretched out to lave them and set them in the convalescence of the heart?
It is to my own generation that I speak, to those for whom the theories of M. de Voltaire happily exist no longer, to those who, like myself, realize that humanity, for these last fifteen years, has been in one of its most audacious moments of expansion. The science of good and evil is acquired forever; faith is refashioned, respect for sacred things has returned to us, and if the world has not all at once become good, it has at least become better. The efforts of every intelligent man tend in the same direction, and every strong will is harnessed to the same principle: Be good, be young, be true! Evil is nothing but vanity, let us have the pride of good, and above all let us never despair. Do not let us despise the woman who is neither mother, sister, maid, nor wife. Do not let us limit esteem to the family nor indulgence to egoism. Since "there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance," let us give joy to heaven. Heaven will render it back to us with usury. Let us leave on our way the alms of pardon for those whom earthly desires have driven astray, whom a divine hope shall perhaps save, and, as old women say when they offer you. some homely remedy of their own, if it does no good it will do no harm.
Doubtless it must seem a bold thing to attempt to deduce these grand results out of the meagre subject that I deal with; but I am one of those who believe that all is in little. The child is small, and he includes the man; the brain is narrow, and it harbours thought; the eye is but a point, and it covers leagues.
Two days after, the sale was ended. It had produced 3.50,000 francs. The creditors divided among them two thirds, and the family, a sister and a grandnephew, received the remainder.
The sister opened her eyes very wide when the lawyer wrote to her that she had inherited 50,000 francs. The girl had not seen her sister for six or seven years, and did not know what had become of her from the moment when she had disappeared from home. She came up to Paris in haste, and great was the astonishment of those who had known Marguerite when they saw as her only heir a fine, fat country girl, who until then had never left her village. She had made the fortune at a single stroke, without even knowing the source of that fortune. She went back, I heard afterward, to her countryside, greatly saddened by her sister's death, but with a sadness which was somewhat lightened by the investment at four and a half per cent which she had been able to make.
All these circumstances, often repeated in Paris, the mother city of scandal, had begun to be forgotten, and I was even little by little forgetting the part I had taken in them, when a new incident brought to my knowledge the whole of Marguerite's life, and acquainted me with such pathetic details that I was taken with the idea of writing down the story which I now write.The rooms, now emptied of all their furniture, had been to let for three or four days when one morning there was a ring at my door.
My servant, or, rather, my porter, who acted as my servant, went to the door and brought me a card, saying that the person who had given it to him wished to see me.I glanced at the card and there read these two words: Armand Duval.
I tried to think where I had seen the name, and remembered the first leaf of the copy of Manon Lescaut. What could the person who had given the book to Marguerite want of me? I gave orders to ask him in at once.
I saw a young man, blond, tall, pale, dressed in a travelling suit which looked as if he had not changed it for some days, and had not even taken the trouble to brush it on arriving at Paris, for it was covered with dust.
M. Duval was deeply agitated; he made no attempt to conceal his agitation, and it was with tears in his eyes and a trembling voice that he said to me: "Sir, I beg you to excuse my visit and my costume; but young people are not very ceremonious with one another, and I was so anxious to see you to-day that I have not even gone to the hotel to which I have sent my luggage, and have rushed straight here, fearing that, after all, I might miss you, early as it is."I begged M. Duval to sit down by the fire; he did so, and, taking his handkerchief from his pocket, hid his face in it for a moment.
"You must be at a loss to understand," he went on, sighing sadly, "for what purpose an unknown visitor, at such an hour, in such a costume, and in tears, can have come to see you. I have simply come to ask of you a great service.""Speak on, sir, I am entirely at your disposal." "You were present at the sale of Marguerite Gautier?" At this word the emotion, which he had got the better of for an instant, was too much for him, and he was obliged to cover his eyes with his hand. "I must seem to you very absurd," he added, "but pardon me, and believe that I shall never forget the patience with which you have listened to me."
"Sir," I answered, "if the service which I can render you is able to lessen your trouble a little, tell me at once what I can do for you, and you will find me only too happy to oblige you."M. Duval's sorrow was sympathetic, arid in spite of myself I felt the desire of doing him a kindness. Thereupon he said to me: "You bought something at Marguerite's sale?" "Yes, a book." "Manon Lescaut?" "Precisely." "Have you the book still?" "It is in my bedroom."
On hearing this, Armand Duval seemed to be relieved of a great weight, and thanked me as if I had already rendered him a service merely by keeping the book.
I got up and went into my room to fetch the book, which I handed to him. "That is it indeed," he said, looking at the inscription on the first page and turning over the leaves; "that is it in deed," and two big tears fell on the pages. "Well, sir," said he, lifting his head, and no longer trying to hide from me that he had wept and was even then on the point of weeping, "do you value this book very greatly?""Why?" "Because I have come to ask you to give it up to me." "Pardon my curiosity, but was it you, then, who gave it to Marguerite Gautier?" "It was!" "The book is yours, sir; take it back. I am happy to be able to hand it over to you." "But," said M. Duval with some embarrassment, "the least I can do is to give you in return the price which you paid for it." "Allow me to offer it to you. The price of a single volume in a sale of that kind is a mere nothing, and I do not remember how much I gave for it." "You gave one hundred francs." "True," I said, embarrassed in my turn, "how do you know?"
"It is quite simple. I hoped to reach Paris in time for the sale, and I only managed to get here this morning. I was absolutely resolved to have something which had belonged to her, and I hastened to the auctioneer and asked him to allow me to see the list of the things sold and of the buyers' names. I saw that this volume had been bought by you, and I decided to ask you to give it up to me, though the price you had set upon it made me fear that you might yourself have some souvenir in connection with the possession of the book."As he spoke, it was evident that he was afraid I had known Marguerite as he had known her. I hastened to reassure him.
"I knew Mlle. Gautier only by sight," I said; "her death made on me the impression that the death of a pretty woman must always make on a young man who had liked seeing her. I wished to buy something at her sale, and I bid higher and higher for this book out of mere obstinacy and to annoy some one else, who was equally keen to obtain it, and who seemed to defy me to the contest. I repeat, then, that the book is yours, and once more I beg you to accept it; do not treat me as if I were an auctioneer, and let it be the pledge between us of a longer and more intimate acquaintance."
"Good," said Armand, holding out his hand and pressing mine; "I accept, and I shall be grateful to you all my life."
I was very anxious to question Armand on the subject of Marguerite, for the inscription in the book, the young man's hurried journey, his desire to possess the volume, piqued my curiosity; but I feared if I questioned my visitor that I might seem to have refused his money only in order to have the right to pry into his affairs.It was as if he guessed my desire, for he said to me: "Have you read the volume?" "All through." "What did you think of the two lines that I wrote in it?"
"I realized at once that the woman to whom you had given the volume must have been quite outside the ordinary category, for I could not take those two lines as a mere empty compliment.""You were right. That woman was an angel. See, read this letter." And he handed to me a paper which seemed to have been many times reread. I opened it, and this is what it contained:
"MY DEAR ARMAND:--I have received your letter. You are still good, and I thank God for it. Yes, my friend, I am ill, and with one of those diseases that never relent; but the interest you still take in me makes my suffering less. I shall not live long enough, I expect, to have the happiness of pressing the hand which has written the kind letter I have just received; the words of it would be enough to cure me, if anything could cure me. I shall not see you, for I am quite near death, and you are hundreds of leagues away. My poor friend! your Marguerite of old times is sadly changed. It is better perhaps for you not to see her again than to see her as she is. You ask if I forgive you; oh, with all my heart, friend, for the way you hurt me was only a way of proving the love you had for me. I have been in bed for a month, and I think so much of your esteem that I write every day the journal of my life, from the moment we left each other to the moment when I shall be able to write no longer. If the interest you take in me is real, Armand, when you come back go and see Julie Duprat. She will give you my journal. You will find in it the reason and the excuse for what has passed between us. Julie is very good to me; we often talk of you together. She was there when your letter came, and we both cried over it.
"If you had not sent me any word, I had told her to give you those papers when you returned to France. Do not thank me for it. This daily looking back on the only happy moments of my life does me an immense amount of good, and if you will find in reading it some excuse for the past. I, for my part, find a continual solace in it. I should like to leave you something which would always remind you of me, but everything here has been seized, and I have nothing of my own.
"Do you understand, my friend? I am dying, and from my bed I can hear a man walking to and fro in the drawing-room; my creditors have put him there to see that nothing is taken away, and that nothing remains to me in case I do not die. I hope they will wait till the end before they begin to sell."Oh, men have no pity! or rather, I am wrong, it is God who is just and inflexible!
"And now, dear love, you will come to my sale, and you will buy something, for if I put aside the least thing for you, they might accuse you of embezzling seized goods."It is a sad life that I am leaving!
"It would be good of God to let me see you again before I die. According to all probability, good-bye, my friend. Pardon me if I do not write a longer letter, but those who say they are going to cure me wear me out with bloodletting, and my hand refuses to write any more."MARGUERITE GAUTIER."
The last two words were scarcely legible. I returned the letter to Armand, who had, no doubt, read it over again in his mind while I was reading it on paper, for he said to me as he took it:
"Who would think that a kept woman could have written that?" And, overcome by recollections, he gazed for some time at the writing of the letter, which he finally carried to his lips.
"And when I think," he went on, "that she died before I could see her, and that I shall never see her again, when I think that she did for me what no sister would ever have done, I can not forgive myself for having left her to die like that. Dead! Dead and thinking of me, writing and repeating my name, poor dear Marguerite!"And Armand, giving free outlet to his thoughts and his tears, held out his hand to me, and continued:
"People would think it childish enough if they saw me lament like this over a dead woman such as she; no one will ever know what I made that woman suffer, how cruel I have been to her! how good, how resigned she was! I thought it was I who had to forgive her, and to-day I feel unworthy of the forgiveness which she grants me. Oh, I would give ten years of my life to weep at her feet for an hour!" It is always difficult to console a sorrow that is unknown to one, and nevertheless I felt so lively a sympathy for the young man, he made me so frankly the confidant of his distress, that I believed a word from me would not be indifferent to him, and I said:"Have you no parents, no friends? Hope. Go and see them; they will console you. As for me, I can only pity you."
"It is true," he said, rising and walking to and fro in the room, "I am wearying you. Pardon me, I did not reflect how little my sorrow must mean to you, and that I am intruding upon you something which can not and ought not to interest you at all."
"You mistake my meaning. I am entirely at your service; only I regret my inability to calm your distress. If my society and that of my friends can give you any distraction, if, in short, you have need of me, no matter in what way, I hope you will realize how much pleasure it will give me to do anything for you."
"Pardon, pardon," said he; "sorrow sharpens the sensations. Let me stay here for a few minutes longer, long enough to dry my eyes, so that the idlers in the street may not look upon it as a curiosity to see a big fellow like me crying. You have made me very happy by giving me this book. I do not know how I can ever express my gratitude to you.""By giving me a little of your friendship," said I, "and by telling me the cause of your suffering. One feels better while telling what one suffers."
"You are right. But to-day I have too much need of tears; I can not very well talk. One day I will tell you the whole story, and you will see if I have reason for regretting the poor girl. And now," he added, rubbing his eyes for the last time, and looking at himself in the glass, "say that you do not think me too absolutely idiotic, and allow me to come back and see you another time."
He cast on me a gentle and amiable look. I was near embracing him. As for him, his eyes again began to fill with tears; he saw that I perceived it and turned away his head."Come," I said, "courage." "Good-bye," he said. And, making a desperate effort to restrain his tears, he rushed rather than went out of the room.
I lifted the curtain of my window, and saw him get into the cabriolet which awaited him at the door; but scarcely was he seated before he burst into tears and hid his face in his pocket-handkerchief.
I do not know if you have noticed, if once the name of anybody who might in the natural course of things have always remained unknown, or at all events indifferent to you, should he mentioned before you, immediately details begin to group themselves about the name, and you find all your friends talking to you about something which they have never mentioned to you before. You discover that this person was almost touching you and has passed close to you many times in your life without your noticing it; you find coincidences in the events which are told you, a real affinity with certain events of your own existence. I was not absolutely at that point in regard to Marguerite, for I had seen and met her, I knew her by sight and by reputation; nevertheless, since the moment of the sale, her name came to my ears so frequently, and, owing to the circumstance that I have mentioned in the last chapter, that name was associated with so profound a sorrow, that my curiosity increased in proportion with my astonishment. The consequence was that whenever I met friends to whom I had never breathed the name of Marguerite, I always began by saying:"Did you ever know a certain Marguerite Gautier?" "The Lady of the Camellias?" "Exactly." "Oh, very well!" The word was sometimes accompanied by a smile which could leave no doubt as to its meaning. "Well, what sort of a girl was she?" "A good sort of girl." "Is that all?" "Oh, yes; more intelligence and perhaps a little more heart than most." "Do you know anything particular about her?" "She ruined Baron de G." "No more than that?" "She was the mistress of the old Duke of . . ." "Was she really his mistress?" "So they say; at all events, he gave her a great deal of money."
The general outlines were always the same. Nevertheless I was anxious to find out something about the relations between Marguerite and Armand. Meeting one day a man who was constantly about with known women, I asked him: "Did you know Marguerite Gautier?"The answer was the usual: "Very well." "What sort of a girl was she?" "A fine, good girl. I was very sorry to hear of her death." "Had she not a lover called Armand Duval?" "Tall and blond?" "Yes. "It is quite true." "Who was this Armand?" "A fellow who squandered on her the little money he had, and then had to leave her. They say he was quite wild about it." "And she?" "They always say she was very much in love with him, but as girls like that are in love. It is no good to ask them for what they can not give." "What has become of Armand?" "I don't know. We knew him very little. He was with Marguerite for five or six months in the country. When she came back, he had gone." "And you have never seen him since?" "Never."
I, too, had not seen Armand again. I was beginning to ask myself if, when he had come to see me, the recent news of Marguerite's death had not exaggerated his former love, and consequently his sorrow, and I said to myself that perhaps he had already forgotten the dead woman, and along with her his promise to come and see me again. This supposition would have seemed probable enough in most instances, but in Armand's despair there had been an accent of real sincerity, and, going from one extreme to another, I imagined that distress had brought on an illness, and that my not seeing him was explained by the fact that he was ill, perhaps dead.
I was interested in the young man in spite of myself. Perhaps there was some selfishness in this interest; perhaps I guessed at some pathetic love story under all this sorrow; perhaps my desire to know all about it had much to do with the anxiety which Armand's silence caused me. Since M. Duval did not return to see me, I decided to go and see him. A pretext was not difficult to find; unluckily I did not know his address, and no one among those whom I questioned could give it to me.
I went to the Rue d'Antin; perhaps Marguerite's porter would know where Armand lived. There was a new porter; he knew as little about it as I. I then asked in what cemetery Mlle. Gautier had been buried. It was the Montmartre Cemetery. It was now the month of April; the weather was fine, the graves were not likely to look as sad and desolate as they do in winter; in short, it was warm enough for the living to think a little of the dead, and pay them a visit. I went to the cemetery, saying to myself: "One glance at Marguerite's grave, and I shall know if Armand's sorrow still exists, and perhaps I may find out what has become of him."
I entered the keeper's lodge, and asked him if on the 22nd of February a woman named Marguerite Gautier had not been buried in the Montmartre Cemetery. He turned over the pages of a big book in which those who enter this last restingplace are inscribed and numbered, and replied that on the 22nd of February, at 12 o'clock, a woman of that name had been buried.
I asked him to show me the grave, for there is no finding one's way without a guide in this city of the dead, which has its streets like a city of the living. The keeper called over a gardener, to whom he gave the necessary instructions; the gardener interrupted him, saying: "I know, I know.--It is not difficult to find that grave," he added, turning to me."Why?" "Because it has very different flowers from the others." "Is it you who look after it?" "Yes, sir; and I wish all relations took as much trouble about the dead as the young man who gave me my orders." After several turnings, the gardener stopped and said to me: "Here we are." I saw before me a square of flowers which one would never have taken for a grave, if it had not been for a white marble slab bearing a name.
The marble slab stood upright, an iron railing marked the limits of the ground purchased, and the earth was covered with white camellias. "What do you say to that?" said the gardener."It is beautiful." "And whenever a camellia fades, I have orders to replace it." "Who gave you the order?"
"A young gentleman, who cried the first time he came here; an old pal of hers, I suppose, for they say she was a gay one. Very pretty, too, I believe. Did you know her, sir?" "Yes.""Like the other?" said the gardener, with a knowing smile. "No, I never spoke to her." "And you come here, too! It is very good of you, for those that come to see the poor girl don't exactly cumber the cemetery." "Doesn't anybody come?" "Nobody, except that young gentleman who came once." "Only once?" "Yes, sir." "He never came back again?" "No, but he will when he gets home." "He is away somewhere?" "Yes." "Do you know where he is?" "I believe he has gone to see Mlle. Gautier's sister."
"What does he want there?" "He has gone to get her authority to have the corpse dug up again and put somewhere else.""Why won't he let it remain here?"
"You know, sir, people have queer notions about dead folk. We see something of that every day. The ground here was only bought for five years, and this young gentleman wants a perpetual lease and a bigger plot of ground; it will be better in the new part.""What do you call the new part?"
"The new plots of ground that are for sale, there to the left. If the cemetery had always been kept like it is now, there wouldn't be the like of it in the world; but there is still plenty to do before it will be quite all it should be. And then people are so queer!""What do you mean?"
"I mean that there are people who carry their pride even here. Now, this Demoiselle Gautier, it appears she lived a bit free, if you'll excuse my saying so. Poor lady, she's dead now; there's no more of her left than of them that no one has a word to say against. We water them every day. Well, when the relatives of the folk that are buried beside her found out the sort of person she was, what do you think they said? That they would try to keep her out from here, and that there ought to be a piece of ground somewhere apart for these sort of women, like there is for the poor. Did you ever hear of such a thing? I gave it to them straight, I did: well-to-do folk who come to see their dead four times a year, and bring their flowers themselves, and what flowers! and look twice at the keep of them they pretend to cry over, and write on their tombstones all about the tears they haven't shed, and come and make difficulties about their neighbours. You may believe me or not, sir, I never knew the young lady; I don't know what she did. Well, I'm quite in love with the poor thing; I look after her well, and I let her have her camellias at an honest price. She is the dead body that I like the best. You see, sir, we are obliged to love the dead, for we are kept so busy, we have hardly time to love anything else."
I looked at the man, and some of my readers will understand, without my needing to explain it to them, the emotion which I felt on hearing him. He observed it, no doubt, for he went on:
"They tell me there were people who ruined themselves over that girl, and lovers that worshipped her; well, when I think there isn't one of them that so much as buys her a flower now, that's queer, sir, and sad. And, after all, she isn't so badly off, for she has her grave to herself, and if there is only one who remembers her, he makes up for the others. But we have other poor girls here, just like her and just her age, and they are just thrown into a pauper's grave, and it breaks my heart when I hear their poor bodies drop into the earth. And not a soul thinks about them any more, once they are dead! 'Tisn't a merry trade, ours, especially when we have a little heart left. What do you expect? I can't help it. I have a fine, strapping girl myself; she's just twenty, and when a girl of that age comes here I think of her, and I don't care if it's a great lady or a vagabond, I can't help feeling it a bit. But I am taking up your time, sir, with my tales, and it wasn't to hear them you came here. I was told to show you Mlle. Gautier's grave; here you have it. Is there anything else I can do for you?""Do you know M. Armand Duval's address?" I asked. "Yes; he lives at Rue de --; at least, that's where I always go to get my money for the flowers you see there." "Thanks, my good man."
I gave one more look at the grave covered with flowers, half longing to penetrate the depths of the earth and see what the earth had made of the fair creature that had been cast to it; then I walked sadly away."Do you want to see M. Duval, sir?" said the gardener, who was walking beside me. "Yes." "Well, I am pretty sure he is not back yet, or he would have been here already." "You don't think he has forgotten Marguerite?" "I am not only sure he hasn't, but I would wager that he wants to change her grave simply in order to have one more look at her." "Why do you think that?"
"The first word he said to me when he came to the cemetery was: 'How can I see her again?' That can't be done unless there is a change of grave, and I told him all about the formalities that have to be attended to in getting it done; for, you see, if you want to move a body from one grave to another you must have it identified, and only the family can give leave for it under the direction of a police inspector. That is why M. Duval has gone to see Mlle. Gautier's sister, and you may be sure his first visit will be for me."
We had come to the cemetery gate. I thanked the gardener again, putting a few coins into his hand, and made my way to the address he had given me. Armand had not yet returned. I left word for him, begging him to come and see me as soon as he arrived, or to send me word where I could find him.
Next day, in the morning, I received a letter from Duval, telling me of his return, and asking me to call on him, as he was so worn out with fatigue that it was impossible for him to go out.
I found Armand in bed. On seeing me he held out a burning hand. "You are feverish," I said to him. "It is nothing, the fatigue of a rapid journey; that is all." "You have been to see Marguerite's sister?" "Yes; who told you?" "I knew it. Did you get what you wanted?""Yes; but who told you of my journey, and of my reason for taking it?" "The gardener of the cemetery." "You have seen the tomb?"
I scarcely dared reply, for the tone in which the words were spoken proved to me that the speaker was still possessed by the emotion which I had witnessed before, and that every time his thoughts or speech travelled back to that mournful subject emotion would still, for a long time to come, prove stronger than his will. I contented myself with a nod of the head.
"He has looked after it well?" continued Armand. Two big tears rolled down the cheeks of the sick man, and he turned away his head to hide them from me. I pretended not to see them, and tried to change the conversation. "You have been away three weeks," I said.Armand passed his hand across his eyes and replied, "Exactly three weeks." "You had a long journey."
"Oh, I was not travelling all the time. I was ill for a fortnight or I should have returned long ago; but I had scarcely got there when I took this fever, and I was obliged to keep my room.""And you started to come back before you were really well?" "If I had remained in the place for another week, I should have died there." "Well, now you are back again, you must take care of yourself; your friends will come and look after you; myself, first of all, if you will allow me." "I shall get up in a couple of hours." "It would be very unwise." "I must." "What have you to do in such a great hurry?" "I must go to the inspector of police." "Why do you not get one of your friends to see after the matter? It is likely to make you worse than you are now."
"It is my only chance of getting better. I must see her. Ever since I heard of her death, especially since I saw her grave, I have not been able to sleep. I can not realize that this woman, so young and so beautiful when I left her, is really dead. I must convince myself of it. I must see what God has done with a being that I have loved so much, and perhaps the horror of the sight will cure me of my despair. Will you accompany me, if it won't be troubling you too much?""What did her sister say about it?"
"Nothing. She seemed greatly surprised that a stranger wanted to buy a plot of ground and give Marguerite a new grave, and she immediately signed the authorization that I asked her for.""Believe me, it would be better to wait until you are quite well."
"Have no fear; I shall be quite composed. Besides, I should simply go out of my mind if I were not to carry out a resolution which I have set myself to carry out. I swear to you that I shall never be myself again until I have seen Marguerite. It is perhaps the thirst of the fever, a sleepless night's dream, a moment's delirium; but though I were to become a Trappist, like M. de Rance', after having seen, I will see.""I understand," I said to Armand, "and I am at your service. Have you seen Julie Duprat?" "Yes, I saw her the day I returned, for the first time." "Did she give you the papers that Marguerite had left for you?" Armand drew a roll of papers from under his pillow, and immediately put them back.
"I know all that is in these papers by heart," he said. "For three weeks I have read them ten times over every day. You shall read them, too, but later on, when I am calmer, and can make you understand all the love and tenderness hidden away in this confession. For the moment I want you to do me a service.""What is it?" "Your cab is below?" "Yes.
"Well, will you take my passport and ask if there are any letters for me at the poste restante? My father and sister must have written to me at Paris, and I went away in such haste that I did not go and see before leaving. When you come back we will go together to the inspector of police, and arrange for to-morrow's ceremony."
Armand handed me his passport, and I went to Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau. There were two letters addressed to Duval. I took them and returned. When I reentered the room Armand was dressed and ready to go out.
"Thanks," he said, taking the letters. "Yes," he added, after glancing at the addresses, "they are from my father and sister. They must have been quite at a loss to understand my silence."
He opened the letters, guessed at rather than read them, for each was of four pages; and a moment after folded them up. "Come," he said, "I will answer tomorrow."
We went to the police station, and Armand handed in the permission signed by Marguerite's sister. He received in return a letter to the keeper of the cemetery, and it was settled that the disinterment was to take place next day, at ten o'clock, that I should call for him an hour before, and that we should go to the cemetery together.
I confess that I was curious to be present, and I did not sleep all night. judging from the thoughts which filled my brain, it must have been a long night for Armand. When I entered his room at nine on the following morning he was frightfully pale, but seemed calm. He smiled and held out his hand. His candles were burned out; and before leaving he took a very heavy letter addressed to his father, and no doubt containing an account of that night's impressions.
Half an hour later we were at Montmartre. The police inspector was there already. We walked slowly in the direction of Marguerite's grave. The inspector went in front; Armand and I followed a few steps behind.
From time to time I felt my companion's arm tremble convulsively, as if he shivered from head to feet. I looked at him. He understood the look, and smiled at me; we had not exchanged a word since leaving the house.
Just before we reached the grave, Armand stopped to wipe his face, which was covered with great drops of sweat. I took advantage of the pause to draw in a long breath, for I, too, felt as if I had a weight on my chest.
What is the origin of that mournful pleasure which we find in sights of this kind? When we reached the grave the gardener had removed all the flower-pots, the iron railing had been taken away, and two men were turning up the soil.
Armand leaned against a tree and watched. All his life seemed to pass before his eyes. Suddenly one of the two pickaxes struck against a stone. At the sound Armand recoiled, as at an electric shock, and seized my hand with such force as to give me pain.One of the grave-diggers took a shovel and began emptying out the earth; then, when only the stones covering the coffin were left, he threw them out one by one.
I scrutinized Armand, for every moment I was afraid lest the emotions which he was visibly repressing should prove too much for him; but he still watched, his eyes fixed and wide open, like the eyes of a madman, and a slight trembling of the cheeks and lips were the only signs of the violent nervous crisis under which he was suffering.As for me, all I can say is that I regretted having come. When the coffin was uncovered the inspector said to the grave-digger: "Open it." They obeyed, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
The coffin was of oak, and they began to unscrew the lid. The humidity of the earth had rusted the screws, and it was not without some difficulty that the coffin was opened. A painful odour arose in spite of the aromatic plants with which it was covered."O my God, my God!" murmured Armand, and turned paler than before. Even the grave-digger drew back.
A great white shroud covered the corpse, closely outlining some of its contours. This shroud was almost completely eaten away at one end, and left one of the feet visible.I was nearly fainting, and at the moment of writing these lines I see the whole scene over again in all its imposing reality.
"Quick," said the inspector. Thereupon one of the men put out his hand, began to unsew the shroud, and taking hold of it by one end suddenly laid bare the face of Marguerite.
It was terrible to see, it is horrible to relate. The eyes were nothing but two holes, the lips had disappeared, vanished, and the white teeth were tightly set. The black hair, long and dry, was pressed tightly about the forehead, and half veiled the green hollows of the cheeks; and yet I recognised in this face the joyous white and rose face that I had seen so often.Armand, unable to turn away his eyes, had put the handkerchief to his mouth and bit it.
For my part, it was as if a circle of iron tightened about my head, a veil covered my eyes, a rumbling filled my ears, and all I could do was to unstop a smelling bottle which I happened to have with me, and to draw in long breaths of it.Through this bewilderment I heard the inspector say to Duval, "Do you identify?" "Yes," replied the young man in a dull voice. "Then fasten it up and take it away," said the inspector.
The grave-diggers put back the shroud over the face of the corpse, fastened up the coffin, took hold of each end of it, and began to carry it toward the place where they had been told to take it.
Armand did not move. His eyes were fixed upon the empty grave; he was as white as the corpse which we had just seen. He looked as if he had been turned to stone.
I saw what was coming as soon as the pain caused by the spectacle should have abated and thus ceased to sustain him. I went up to the inspector. "Is this gentleman's presence still necessary?" I said, pointing to Armand."No," he replied, "and I should advise you to take him away. He looks ill." "Come," I said to Armand, taking him by the arm. "What?" he said, looking at me as if he did not recognise me. "It is all over," I added. "You must come, my friend; you are quite white; you are cold. These emotions will be too much for you." "You are right. Let us go," he answered mechanically, but without moving a step.
I took him by the arm and led him along. He let himself be guided like a child, only from time to time murmuring, "Did you see her eyes?" and he turned as if the vision had recalled her.
Nevertheless, his steps became more irregular; he seemed to walk by a series of jerks; his teeth chattered; his hands were cold; a violent agitation ran through his body. I spoke to him; he did not answer. He was just able to let himself be led along. A cab was waiting at the gate. It was only just in time. Scarcely had he seated himself, when the shivering became more violent, and he had an actual attack of nerves, in the midst of which his fear of frightening me made him press my hand and whisper: "It is nothing, nothing. I want to weep."
His chest laboured, his eyes were injected with blood, but no tears came. I made him smell the salts which I had with me, and when we reached his house only the shivering remained.With the help of his servant I put him to bed, lit a big fire in his room, and hurried off to my doctor, to whom I told all that had happened. He hastened with me. Armand was flushed and delirious; he stammered out disconnected words, in which only the name of Marguerite could be distinctly heard. "Well?" I said to the doctor when he had examined the patient.
"Well, he has neither more nor less than brain fever, and very lucky it is for him, for I firmly believe (God forgive me!) that he would have gone out of his mind. Fortunately, the physical malady will kill the mental one, and in a month's time he will be free from the one and perhaps from the other."
Illnesses like Armand's have one fortunate thing about them: they either kill outright or are very soon overcome. A fortnight after the events which I have just related Armand was convalescent, and we had already become great friends. During the whole course of his illness I had hardly left his side.
Spring was profuse in its flowers, its leaves, its birds, its songs; and my friend's window opened gaily upon his garden, from which a reviving breath of health seemed to come to him. The doctor had allowed him to get up, and we often sat talking at the open window, at the hour when the sun is at its height, from twelve to two. I was careful not to refer to Marguerite, fearing lest the name should awaken sad recollections hidden under the apparent calm of the invalid; but Armand, on the contrary, seemed to delight in speaking of her, not as formerly, with tears in his eyes, but with a sweet smile which reassured me as to the state of his mind.
I had noticed that ever since his last visit to the cemetery, and the sight which had brought on so violent a crisis, sorrow seemed to have been overcome by sickness, and Marguerite's death no longer appeared to him under its former aspect. A kind of consolation had sprung from the certainty of which he was now fully persuaded, and in order to banish the sombre picture which often presented itself to him, he returned upon the happy recollections of his liaison with Marguerite, and seemed resolved to think of nothing else.
The body was too much weakened by the attack of fever, and even by the process of its cure, to permit him any violent emotions, and the universal joy of spring which wrapped him round carried his thoughts instinctively to images of joy. He had always obstinately refused to tell his family of the danger which he had been in, and when he was well again his father did not even know that he had been ill.
One evening we had sat at the window later than usual; the weather had been superb, and the sun sank to sleep in a twilight dazzling with gold and azure. Though we were in Paris, the verdure which surrounded us seemed to shut us off from the world, and our conversation was only now and again disturbed by the sound of a passing vehicle.
"It was about this time of the year, on the evening of a day like this, that I first met Marguerite," said Armand to me, as if he were listening to his own thoughts rather than to what I was saying. I did not answer. Then turning toward me, he said:
"I must tell you the whole story; you will make a book out of it; no one will believe it, but it will perhaps be interesting to do."
Yes (Armand went on, letting his head sink back on the chair), yes, it was just such an evening as this. I had spent the day in the country with one of my friends, Gaston R--. We returned to Paris in the evening, and not knowing what to do we went to the Varietes. We went out during one of the entr'actes, and a tall woman passed us in the corridor, to whom my friend bowed."Whom are you bowing to?" I asked. "Marguerite Gautier," he said. "She seems much changed, for I did not recognise her," I said, with an emotion that you will soon understand. "She has been ill; the poor girl won't last long." I remember the words as if they had been spoken to me yesterday.
I must tell you, my friend, that for two years the sight of this girl had made a strange impression on me whenever I came across her. Without knowing why, I turned pale and my heart beat violently. I have a friend who studies the occult sciences, and he would call what I experienced "the affinity of fluids"; as for me, I only know that I was fated to fall in love with Marguerite, and that I foresaw it.
It is certainly the fact that she made a very definite impression upon me, that many of my friends had noticed it and that they had been much amused when they saw who it was that made this impression upon me.
The first time I ever saw her was in the Place de la Bourse, outside Susse's; an open carriage was stationed there, and a woman dressed in white got down from it. A murmur of admiration greeted her as she entered the shop. As for me, I was rivetted to the spot from the moment she went in till the moment when she came out again. I could see her through the shop windows selecting what she had come to buy. I might have gone in, but I dared not. I did not know who she was, and I was afraid lest she should guess why I had come in and be offended. Nevertheless, I did not think I should ever see her again.
She was elegantly dressed; she wore a muslin dress with many flounces, an Indian shawl embroidered at the corners with gold and silk flowers, a straw hat, a single bracelet, and a heavy gold chain, such as was just then beginning to be the fashion.
She returned to her carriage and drove away. One of the shopmen stood at the door looking after his elegant customer's carriage. I went up to him and asked him what was the lady's name."Mademoiselle Marguerite Gautier," he replied. I dared not ask him for her address, and went on my way.
The recollection of this vision, for it was really a vision, would not leave my mind like so many visions I had seen, and I looked everywhere for this royally beautiful woman in white.A few days later there was a great performance at the Opera Comique. The first person I saw in one of the boxes was Marguerite Gautier. The young man whom I was with recognised her immediately, for he said to me, mentioning her name: "Look at that pretty girl." At that moment Marguerite turned her opera-glass in our direction and, seeing my friend, smiled and beckoned to him to come to her. "I will go and say 'How do you do?' to her," he said, "and will be back in a moment." "I could not help saying "Happy man!" "Why?" "To go and see that woman." "Are you in love with her?" "No," I said, flushing, for I really did not know what to say; "but I should very much like to know her." "Come with me. I will introduce you." "Ask her if you may." "Really, there is no need to be particular with her; come." What he said troubled me. I feared to discover that Marguerite was not worthy of the sentiment which I felt for her.
In a book of Alphonse Karr entitles Am Rauchen, there is a man who one evening follows a very elegant woman, with whom he had fallen in love with at first sight on account of her beauty. Only to kiss her hand he felt that he had the strength to undertake anything, the will to conquer anything, the courage to achieve anything. He scarcely dares glance at the trim ankle which she shows as she holds her dress out of the mud. While he is dreaming of all that he would do to possess this woman, she stops at the corner of the street and asks if he will come home with her. He turns his head, crosses the street, and goes sadly back to his own house.
I recalled the story, and, having longed to suffer for this woman, I was afraid that she would accept me too promptly and give me at once what I fain would have purchased by long waiting or some great sacrifice. We men are built like that, and it is very fortunate that the imagination lends so much poetry to the senses, and that the desires of the body make thus such concession to the dreams of the soul. If any one had said to me, You shall have this woman to-night and be killed tomorrow, I would have accepted. If any one had said to me, you can be her lover for ten pounds, I would have refused. I would have cried like a child who sees the castle he has been dreaming about vanish away as he awakens from sleep.
All the same, I wished to know her; it was my only means of making up my mind about her. I therefore said to my friend that I insisted on having her permission to be introduced to her, and I wandered to and fro in the corridors, saying to myself that in a moment's time she was going to see me, and that I should not know which way to look. I tried (sublime childishness of love!) to string together the words I should say to her.A moment after my friend returned. "She is expecting us," he said. "Is she alone?" I asked. "With another woman." "There are no men?" "No." "Come, then." My friend went toward the door of the theatre. "That is not the way," I said. "We must go and get some sweets. She asked me for some."
We went into a confectioner's in the passage de l'Opera. I would have bought the whole shop, and I was looking about to see what sweets to choose, when my friend asked for a pound of raisins glaces."Do you know if she likes them?" "She eats no other kind of sweets; everybody knows it.
"Ah," he went on when we had left the shop, "do you know what kind of woman it is that I am going to introduce you to? Don't imagine it is a duchess. It is simply a kept woman, very much kept, my dear fellow; don't be shy, say anything that comes into your head.""Yes, yes," I stammered, and I followed him, saying to myself that I should soon cure myself of my passion.
When I entered the box Marguerite was in fits of laughter. I would rather that she had been sad. My friend introduced me; Marguerite gave me a little nod, and said, "And my sweets?""Here they are." She looked at me as she took them. I dropped my eyes and blushed.
She leaned across to her neighbour and said something in her ear, at which both laughed. Evidently I was the cause of their mirth, and my embarrassment increased. At that time I had as mistress a very affectionate and sentimental little person, whose sentiment and whose melancholy letters amused me greatly. I realized the pain I must have given her by what I now experienced, and for five minutes I loved her as no woman was ever loved.
Marguerite ate her raisins glaces without taking any more notice of me. The friend who had introduced me did not wish to let me remain in so ridiculous a position."Marguerite," he said, "you must not be surprised if M. Duval says nothing: you overwhelm him to such a degree that he can not find a word to say."
"I should say, on the contrary, that he has only come with you because it would have bored you to come here by yourself."
"If that were true," I said, "I should not have begged Ernest to ask your permission to introduce me."
However little one may have known women like Marguerite, one can not but know the delight they take in pretending to be witty and in teasing the people whom they meet for the first time. It is no doubt a return for the humiliations which they often have to submit to on the part of those whom they see every day.
To answer them properly, one requires a certain knack, and I had not had the opportunity of acquiring it; besides, the idea that I had formed of Marguerite accentuated the effects of her mockery. Nothing that dame from her was indifferent to me. I rose to my feet, saying in an altered voice, which I could not entirely control:
"If that is what you think of me, madame, I have only to ask your pardon for my indiscretion, and to take leave of you with the assurance that it shall not occur again."
Thereupon I bowed and quitted the box. I had scarcely closed the door when I heard a third peal of laughter. It would not have been well for anybody who had elbowed me at that moment.I returned to my seat. The signal for raising the curtain was given. Ernest came back to his place beside me. "What a way you behaved!" he said, as he sat down. "They will think you are mad." "What did Marguerite say after I had gone?"
"She laughed, and said she had never seen any one so funny. But don't look upon it as a lost chance; only do not do these women the honour of taking them seriously. They do not know what politeness and ceremony are. It is as if you were to offer perfumes to dogs--they would think it smelled bad, and go and roll in the gutter."
"After all, what does it matter to me?" I said, affecting to speak in a nonchalant way. "I shall never see this woman again, and if I liked her before meeting her, it is quite different now that I know her."
"Bah! I don't despair of seeing you one day at the back of her box, and of bearing that you are ruining yourself for her. However, you are right, she hasn't been well brought up; but she would be a charming mistress to have."
Happily, the curtain rose and my friend was silent. I could not possibly tell you what they were acting. All that I remember is that from time to time I raised my eyes to the box I had quitted so abruptly, and that the faces of fresh visitors succeeded one another all the time.
I was far from having given up thinking about Marguerite. Another feeling had taken possession of me. It seemed to me that I had her insult and my absurdity to wipe out; I said to myself that if I spent every penny I had, I would win her and win my right to the place I had abandoned so quickly.Before the performance was over Marguerite and her friend left the box. I rose from my seat. "Are you going?" said Ernest. "Yes." "Why?" At that moment he saw that the box was empty. "Go, go," he said, "and good luck, or rather better luck." I went out.
I heard the rustle of dresses, the sound of voices, on the staircase. I stood aside, and, without being seen, saw the two women pass me, accompanied by two young men. At the entrance to the theatre they were met by a footman."Tell the coachman to wait at the door of the Cafe' Anglais," said Marguerite. "We will walk there."
A few minutes afterward I saw Marguerite from the street at a window of one of the large rooms of the restaurant, pulling the camellias of her bouquet to pieces, one by one. One of the two men was leaning over her shoulder and whispering in her ear. I took up my position at the Maison-d'or, in one of the first-floor rooms, and did not lose sight of the window for an instant. At one in the morning Marguerite got into her carriage with her three friends. I took a cab and followed them. The carriage stopped at No. 9, Rue d'Antin. Marguerite got out and went in alone. It was no doubt a mere chance, but the chance filled me with delight.From that time forward, I often met Marguerite at the theatre or in the ChampsElysees. Always there was the same gaiety in her, the same emotion in me. At last a fortnight passed without my meeting her. I met Gaston and asked after her. "Poor girl, she is very ill," he answered. "What is the matter?" "She is consumptive, and the sort of life she leads isn't exactly the thing to cure her. She has taken to her bed; she is dying." The heart is a strange thing; I was almost glad at hearing it. Every day I went to ask after her, without leaving my name or my card. I heard she was convalescent and had gone to Bagneres.
Time went by, the impression, if not the memory, faded gradually from my mind. I travelled; love affairs, habits, work, took the place of other thoughts, and when I recalled this adventure I looked upon it as one of those passions which one has when one is very young, and laughs at soon afterward.
For the rest, it was no credit to me to have got the better of this recollection, for I had completely lost sight of Marguerite, and, as I told you, when she passed me in the corridor of the Varietes, I did not recognise her. She was veiled, it is true; but, veiled though she might have been two years earlier, I should not have needed to see her in order to recognise her: I should have known her intuitively. All the same, my heart began to beat when I knew that it was she; and the two years that had passed since I saw her, and what had seemed to be the results of that separation, vanished in smoke at the mere touch of her dress.
However (continued Armand after a pause), while I knew myself to be still in love with her, I felt more sure of myself, and part of my desire to speak to Marguerite again was a wish to make her see that I was stronger than she.How many ways does the heart take, how many reasons does it invent for itself, in order to arrive at what it wants!
I could not remain in the corridor, and I returned to my place in the stalls, looking hastily around to see what box she was in. She was in a ground-floor box, quite alone. She had changed, as I have told you, and no longer wore an indifferent smile on her lips. She had suffered; she was still suffering. Though it was April, she was still wearing a winter costume, all wrapped up in furs.
I gazed at her so fixedly that my eyes attracted hers. She looked at me for a few seconds, put up her opera-glass to see me better, and seemed to think she recognised me, without being quite sure who I was, for when she put down her glasses, a smile, that charming, feminine salutation, flitted across her lips, as if to answer the bow which she seemed to expect; but I did not respond, so as to have an advantage over her, as if I had forgotten, while she remembered. Supposing herself mistaken,, she looked away.
The curtain went up. I have often seen Marguerite at the theatre. I never saw her pay the slightest attention to what was being acted. As for me, the performance interested me equally little, and I paid no attention to anything but her, though doing my utmost to keep her from noticing it.
Presently I saw her glancing across at the person who was in the opposite box; on looking, I saw a woman with whom I was quite familiar. She had once been a kept woman, and had tried to go on the stage, had failed, and, relying on her acquaintance with fashionable people in Paris, had gone into business and taken a milliner's shop. I saw in her a means of meeting with Marguerite, and profited by a moment in which she looked my way to wave my hand to her. As I expected, she beckoned to me to come to her box.
Prudence Duvernoy (that was the milliner's auspicious name) was one of those fat women of forty with whom one requires very little diplomacy to make them understand what one wants to know, especially when what one wants to know is as simple as what I had to ask of her.I took advantage of a moment when she was smiling across at Marguerite to ask her, "Whom are you looking at?" "Marguerite Gautier." "You know her?" "Yes, I am her milliner, and she is a neighbour of mine." "Do you live in the Rue d'Antin?" "No. 7. The window of her dressing-room looks on to the window of mine." "They say she is a charming girl." "Don't you know her?" "No, but I should like to." "Shall I ask her to come over to our box?" "No, I would rather for you to introduce me to her." "At her own house?" "Yes. "That is more difficult." "Why?" "Because she is under the protection of a jealous old duke." "'Protection' is charming." "Yes, protection," replied Prudence. "Poor old man, he would be greatly embarrassed to offer her anything else." Prudence then told me how Marguerite had made the acquaintance of the duke at Bagneres. "That, then," I continued, "is why she is alone here?" "Precisely." "But who will see her home?" "He will." "He will come for her?" "In a moment." "And you, who is seeing you home?" "No one." "May I offer myself?" "But you are with a friend, are you not?" "May we offer, then?" "Who is your friend?" "A charming fellow, very amusing. He will be delighted to make your acquaintance." "Well, all right; we will go after this piece is over, for I know the last piece." "With pleasure; I will go and tell my friend." "Go, then. Ah," added Prudence, as I was going, "there is the duke just coming into Marguerite's box."
I looked at him. A man of about seventy had sat down behind her, and was giving her a bag of sweets, into which she dipped at once, smiling. Then she held it out toward Prudence, with a gesture which seemed to say, "Will you have some?""No," signalled Prudence. Marguerite drew back the bag, and, turning, began to talk with the duke. It may sound childish to tell you all these details, but everything relating to Marguerite is so fresh in my memory that I can not help recalling them now.
I went back to Gaston and told him of the arrangement I had made for him and for me. He agreed, and we left our stalls to go round to Mme. Duvernoy's box. We had scarcely opened the door leading into the stalls when we had to stand aside to allow Marguerite and the duke to pass. I would have given ten years of my life to have been in the old man's place.
When they were on the street he handed her into a phaeton, which he drove himself, and they were whirled away by two superb horses.
We returned to Prudence's box, and when the play was over we took a cab and drove to 7, Rue d'Antin. At the door, Prudence asked us to come up and see her showrooms, which we had never seen, and of which she seemed very proud. You can imagine how eagerly I accepted. It seemed to me as if I was coming nearer and nearer to Marguerite. I soon turned the conversation in her direction.
"I never see any one remain after I leave; I don't say no one ever comes when I am gone. Often in the evening I meet there a certain Comte de N., who thinks he is making some headway by calling on her at eleven in the evening, and by sending her jewels to any extent; but she can't stand him. She makes a mistake; he is very rich. It is in vain that I say to her from time to time, 'My dear child, there's the man for you.' She, who generally listens to me, turns her back and replies that he is too stupid. Stupid, indeed, he is; but it would be a position for her, while this old duke might die any day. Old men are egoists; his family are always reproaching him for his affection for Marguerite; there are two reasons why he is likely to leave her nothing. I give her good advice, and she only says it will be plenty of time to take on the count when the duke is dead. It isn't all fun," continued Prudence, "to live like that. I know very well it wouldn't suit me, and I should soon send the old man about his business. He is so dull; he calls her his daughter; looks after her like a child; and is always in the way. I am sure at this very moment one of his servants is prowling about in the street to see who comes out, and especially who goes in.""Ah, poor Marguerite!" said Gaston, sitting down to the piano and playing a waltz. "I hadn't a notion of it, but I did notice she hasn't been looking so gay lately." "Hush," said Prudence, listening. Gaston stopped. "She is calling me, I think." We listened. A voice was calling, "Prudence!" "Come, now, you must go," said Mme. Duvernoy. "Ah, that is your idea of hospitality," said Gaston, laughing; "we won't go till we please." "Why should we go?" "I am going over to Marguerite's." "We will wait here." "You can't." "Then we will go with you." "That still less." "I know Marguerite," said Gaston; I can very well pay her a call." "But Armand doesn't know her." "I will introduce him." "Impossible."
We again heard Marguerite's voice calling to Prudence, who rushed to her dressing-room window. I followed with Gaston as she opened the window. We hid ourselves so as not to be seen from outside."I have been calling you for ten minutes," said Marguerite from her window, in almost an imperious tone of voice. "What do you want?" "I want you to come over at once." "Why?" "Because the Comte de N. is still here, and he is boring me to death." "I can't now." "What is hindering you?" "There are two young fellows here who won't go." "Tell them that you must go out." "I have told them." "Well, then, leave them in the house. They will soon go when they see you have gone." "They will turn everything upside down." "But what do they want?" "They want to see you." "What are they called?" "You know one, M. Gaston R." "Ah, yes, I know him. And the other?" "M. Armand Duval; and you don't know him." "No, but bring them along. Anything is better than the count. I expect you. Come at once."
Marguerite closed her window and Prudence hers. Marguerite, who had remembered my face for a moment, did not remember my name. I would rather have been remembered to my disadvantage than thus forgotten."I knew," said Gaston, "that she would be delighted to see us."
"Delighted isn't the word," replied Prudence, as she put on her hat and shawl. "She will see you in order to get rid of the count. Try to be more agreeable than he is, or (I know Marguerite) she will put it all down to me."
We followed Prudence downstairs. I trembled; it seemed to me that this visit was to have a great influence on my life. I was still more agitated than on the evening when I was introduced in the box at the Opera Comique. As we reached the door that you know, my heart beat so violently that I was hardly able to think.
We heard the sound of a piano. Prudence rang. The piano was silent. A woman who looked more like a companion than a servant opened the door. We went into the drawing-room, and from that to the boudoir, which was then just as you have seen it since. A young man was leaning against the mantel-piece. Marguerite, seated at the piano, let her fingers wander over the notes, beginning scraps of music without finishing them. The whole scene breathed boredom, the man embarrassed by the consciousness of his nullity, the woman tired of her dismal visitor. At the voice of Prudence, Marguerite rose, and coming toward us with a look of gratitude to Mme. Duvernoy, said:"Come in, and welcome."
"Friends," and Marguerite lingered over the word, as if to intimate to those who were present that in spite of the familiar way in which she greeted him, Gaston was not and never had been anything more than a friend, "friends are always welcome.""Then, will you permit me to introduce M. Armand Duval?" "I had already authorized Prudence to do so."
"As far as that goes, madame," I said, bowing, and succeeding in getting more or less intelligible sounds out of my throat, "I have already had the honour of being introduced to you."Marguerite's beautiful eyes seemed to be looking back in memory, but she could not, or seemed not to, remember.
"Madame," I continued, "I am grateful to you for having forgotten the occasion of my first introduction, for I was very absurd and must have seemed to you very tiresome. It was at the Opera Comique, two years ago; I was with Ernest de --."
"Ah, I remember," said Marguerite, with a smile. "It was not you who were absurd; it was I who was mischievous, as I still am, but somewhat less. You have forgiven me?"And she held out her hand, which I kissed.
"It is true," she went on; "you know I have the bad habit of trying to embarrass people the first time I meet them. It is very stupid. My doctor says it is because I am nervous and always ill; believe my doctor.""But you seem quite well." "Oh! I have been very ill." "I know."
"Who told you?" "Every one knew it; I often came to inquire after you, and I was happy to hear of your convalescence.""They never gave me your card." "I did not leave it." "Was it you, then, who called every day while I was ill, and would never leave your name?" "Yes, it was I."
"Then you are more than indulgent, you are generous. You, count, wouldn't have done that," said she, turning toward M. de N., after giving me one of those looks in which women sum up their opinion of a man."I have only known you for two months," replied the count. "And this gentleman only for five minutes. You always say something ridiculous." Women are pitiless toward those whom they do not care for. The count reddened and bit his lips.
I was sorry for him, for he seemed, like myself, to be in love, and the bitter frankness of Marguerite must have made him very unhappy, especially in the presence of two strangers.
"You were playing the piano when we came in," I said, in order to change the conversation. "Won't you be so good as to treat me as an old acquaintance and go on?"
"Oh," said she, flinging herself on the sofa and motioning to us to sit down, "Gaston knows what my music is like. It is all very well when I am alone with the count, but I won't inflict such a punishment on you.""You show me that preference?" said M. de N., with a smile which he tried to render delicately ironical. "Don't reproach me for it. It is the only one." It was fated that the poor man was not to say a single word. He cast a really supplicating glance at Marguerite. "Well, Prudence," she went on, "have you done what I asked you to do?"
"Yes. "All right. You will tell me about it later. We must talk over it; don't go before I can speak with you.""We are doubtless intruders," I said, "and now that we, or rather I, have had a second introduction, to blot out the first, it is time for Gaston and me to be going." "Not in the least. I didn't mean that for you. I want you to stay."
The count took a very elegant watch out of his pocket and looked at the time. "I must be going to my club," he said. Marguerite did not answer. The count thereupon left his position by the fireplace and going up to her, said: "Adieu, madame."Marguerite rose. "Adieu, my dear count. Are you going already?" "Yes, I fear I am boring you." "You are not boring me to-day more than any other day. When shall I be seeing you?" "When you permit me." "Good-bye, then."
It was cruel, you will admit. Fortunately, the count had excellent manners and was very good-tempered. He merely kissed Marguerite's hand, which she held out to him carelessly enough, and, bowing to us, went out.As he crossed the threshold, he cast a glance at Prudence. She shrugged her shoulders, as much as to say: "What do you expect? I have done all I could." "Nanine!" cried Marguerite. "Light M. le Comte to the door." We heard the door open and shut. "At last," cried Marguerite, coming back, "he has gone! That man gets frightfully on my nerves!"
"My dear child," said Prudence, "you really treat him too badly, and he is so good and kind to you. Look at this watch on the mantel-piece, that he gave you: it must have cost him at least three thousand francs, I am sure."
And Mme. Duvernoy began to turn it over, as it lay on the mantel-piece, looking at it with covetous eyes.
"My dear," said Marguerite, sitting down to the piano, "when I put on one side what he gives me and on the other what he says to me, it seems to me that he buys his visits very cheap."
What was passing in my mind I should have some difficulty in explaining. I was full of indulgence for her life, full of admiration for her beauty. The proof of disinterestedness that she gave in not accepting a rich and fashionable young man, ready to waste all his money upon her, excused her in my eyes for all her faults in the past.
There was a kind of candour in this woman. You could see she was still in the virginity of vice. Her firm walk, her supple figure, her rosy, open nostrils, her large eyes, slightly tinged with blue, indicated one of those ardent natures which sbed around them a sort of voluptuous perfume, like Eastern vials, which, close them as tightly as you will, still let some of their perfume escape. Finally, whether it was simple nature or a breath of fever, there passed from time to time in the eyes of this woman a glimmer of desire, giving promise of a very heaven for one whom she should love. But those who had loved Marguerite were not to be counted, nor those whom she had loved.
In this girl there was at once the virgin whom a mere nothing had turned into a courtesan, and the courtesan whom a mere nothing would have turned into the most loving and the purest of virgins. Marguerite had still pride and independence, two sentiments which, if they are wounded, can be the equivalent of a sense of shame. I did not speak a word; my soul seemed to have passed into my heart and my heart into my eyes."So," said she all at once, "it was you who came to inquire after me when I was ill?" "Yes." "Do you know, it was quite splendid of you! How can I thank you for it?" "By allowing me to come and see you from time to time." "As often as you like, from five to six, and from eleven to twelve. Now, Gaston, play the Invitation A la Valse." "Why?" "To please me, first of all, and then because I never can manage to play it myself." "What part do you find difficult?" "The third part, the part in sharps." Gaston rose and went to the piano, and began to play the wonderful melody of Weber, the music of which stood open before him.
Marguerite, resting one hand on the piano, followed every note on the music, accompanying it in a low voice, and when Gaston had come to the passage which she had mentioned to him, she sang out, running her fingers along the top of the piano:"Do, re, mi, do, re, fa, mi, re; that is what I can not do. Over again." Gaston began over again, after which Marguerite said: "Now, let me try." She took her place and began to play; but her rebellious fingers always came to grief over one of the notes.
"Isn't it incredible," she said, exactly like a child, "that I can not succeed in playing that passage? Would you believe that I sometimes spend two hours of the morning over it? And when I think that that idiot of a count plays it without his music, and beautifully, I really believe it is that that makes me so furious with him." And she began again, always with the same result.
"The devil take Weber, music, and pianos!" she cried, throwing the music to the other end of the room. "How can I play eight sharps one after another?" She folded her arms and looked at us, stamping her foot. The blood flew to her cheeks, and her lips half opened in a slight cough.
"Come, come," said Prudence, who had taken off her hat and was smoothing her hair before the glass, "you will work yourself into a rage and do yourself harm. Better come and have supper; for my part, I am dying of hunger."
Marguerite rang the bell, sat down to the piano again, and began to hum over a very risky song, which she accompanied without difficulty. Gaston knew the song, and they gave a sort of duet."Don't sing those beastly things," I said to Marguerite, imploringly. "Oh, how proper you are!" she said, smiling and giving me her hand. "It is not for myself, but for you." Marguerite made a gesture as if to say, "Oh, it is long since that I have done with propriety!" At that moment Nanine appeared. "Is supper ready?" asked Marguerite. "Yes, madame, in one moment." "Apropos," said Prudence to me, "you have not looked round; come, and I will show you." As you know, the drawing-room was a marvel. Marguerite went with us for a moment; then she called Gaston and went into the dining-room with him to see if supper was ready. "Ah," said Prudence, catching sight of a little Saxe figure on a side-table, "I never knew you had this little gentleman." "Which?" "A little shepherd holding a bird-cage." "Take it, if you like it." "I won't deprive you of it." "I was going to give it to my maid. I think it hideous; but if you like it, take it."
Prudence only saw the present, not the way in which it was given. She put the little figure on one side, and took me into the dressing-room, where she showed me two miniatures hanging side by side, and said:"That is the Comte de G., who was very much in love with Marguerite; it was he who brought her out. Do you know him?" "No. And this one?" I inquired, pointing to the other miniature. "That is the little Vicomte de L. He was obliged to disappear." "Why?" "Because he was all but ruined. That's one, if you like, who loved Marguerite." "And she loved him, too, no doubt?" "She is such a queer girl, one never knows. The night he went away she went to the theatre as usual, and yet she had cried when he said good-bye to her." Just then Nanine appeared, to tell us that supper was served. When we entered the dining-room, Marguerite was leaning against the wall, and Gaston, holding her hands, was speaking to her in a low voice.
"You are mad," replied Marguerite. "You know quite well that I don't want you. It is no good at the end of two years to make love to a woman like me. With us, it is at once, or never. Come, gentlemen, supper!"And, slipping away from Gaston, Marguerite made him sit on her right at table, me on her left, then called to Nanine: "Before you sit down, tell them in the kitchen not to open to anybody if there is a ring." This order was given at one o'clock in the morning.
We laughed, drank, and ate freely at this supper. In a short while mirth had reached its last limit, and the words that seem funny to a certain class of people, words that degrade the mouth that utters them, were heard from time to time, amidst the applause of Nanine, of Prudence, and of Marguerite. Gaston was thoroughly amused; he was a very good sort of fellow, but somewhat spoiled by the habits of his youth. For a moment I tried to forget myself, to force my heart and my thoughts to become indifferent to the sight before me, and to take my share of that gaiety which seemed like one of the courses of the meal. But little by little I withdrew from the noise; my glass remained full, and I felt almost sad as I saw this beautiful creature of twenty drinking, talking like a porter, and laughing the more loudly the more scandalous was the joke.
Nevertheless, this hilarity, this way of talking and drinking, which seemed to me in the others the mere results of bad company or of bad habits, seemed in Marguerite a necessity of forgetting, a fever, a nervous irritability. At every glass of champagne her cheeks would flush with a feverish colour, and a cough, hardly perceptible at the beginning of supper, became at last so violent that she was obliged to lean her head on the back of her chair and hold her chest in her hands every time that she coughed. I suffered at the thought of the injury to so frail a constitution which must come from daily excesses like this. At length, something which I had feared and foreseen happened. Toward the end of supper Marguerite was seized by a more violent fit of coughing than any she had had while I was there. It seemed as if her chest were being torn in two. The poor girl turned crimson, closed her eyes under the pain, and put her napkin to her lips. It was stained with a drop of blood. She rose and ran into her dressing-room."What is the matter with Marguerite?" asked Gaston.
"She has been laughing too much, and she is spitting blood. Oh, it is nothing; it happens to her every day. She will be back in a minute. Leave her alone. She prefers it."I could not stay still; and, to the consternation of Prudence and Nanine, who called to me to come back, I followed Marguerite."
The room to which she had fled was lit only by a single candle. She lay back on a great sofa, her dress undone, holding one hand on her heart, and letting the other hang by her side. On the table was a basin half full of water, and the water was stained with streaks of blood.
Very pale, her mouth half open, Marguerite tried to recover breath. Now and again her bosom was raised by a long sigh, which seemed to relieve her a little, and for a few seconds she would seem to be quite comfortable.I went up to her; she made no movement, and I sat down and took the hand which was lying on the sofa. "Ah! it is you," she said, with a smile. I must have looked greatly agitated, for she added: "Are you unwell, too?" "No, but you: do you still suffer?" "Very little;" and she wiped off with her handkerchief the tears which the coughing had brought to her eyes; "I am used to it now."
"You are killing yourself, madame," I said to her in a moved voice. "I wish I were a friend, a relation of yours, that I might keep you from doing yourself harm like this."
"Ah! it is really not worth your while to alarm yourself," she replied in a somewhat bitter tone; "see how much notice the others take of me! They know too well that there is nothing to be done."Thereupon she got up, and, taking the candle, put it on the mantel-piece and looked at herself in the glass. "How pale I am!" she said, as she fastened her dress and passed her fingers over her loosened hair. "Come, let us go back to supper. Are you coming?" I sat still and did not move. She saw how deeply I had been affected by the whole scene, and, coming up to me, held out her hand, saying: "Come now, let us go." I took her hand, raised it to my lips, and in spite of myself two tears fell upon it. "Why, what a child you are!" she said, sitting down by my side again. "You are crying! What is the matter?" "I must seem very silly to you, but I am frightfully troubled by what I have just seen."
"You are very good! What would you have of me? I can not sleep. I must amuse myself a little. And then, girls like me, what does it matter, one more or less? The doctors tell me that the blood I spit up comes from my throat; I pretend to believe them; it is all I can do for them."
"Listen, Marguerite," I said, unable to contain myself any longer; "I do not know what influence you are going to have over my life, but at this present moment there is no one, not even my sister, in whom I feel the interest which I feel in you. It has been just the same ever since I saw you. Well, for Heaven's sake, take care of yourself, and do not live as you are living now."
"If I took care of myself I should die. All that supports me is the feverish life I lead. Then, as for taking care of oneself, that is all very well for women with families and friends; as for us, from the moment we can no longer serve the vanity or the pleasure of our lovers, they leave us, and long nights follow long days. I know it. I was in bed for two months, and after three weeks no one came to see me."
"It is true I am nothing to you," I went on, "but if you will let me, I will look after you like a brother, I will never leave your side, and I will cure you. Then, when you are strong again, you can go back to the life you are leading, if you choose; but I am sure you will come to prefer a quiet life, which will make you happier and keep your beauty unspoiled.""You think like that to-night because the wine has made you sad, but you would never have the patience that you pretend to." "Permit me to say, Marguerite, that you were ill for two months, and that for two months I came to ask after you every day." "It is true, but why did you not come up?" "Because I did not know you then." "Need you have been so particular with a girl like me?" "One must always be particular with a woman; it is what I feel, at least." "So you would look after me?" "Yes." "You would stay by me all day?" "Yes. "And even all night?" "As long as I did not weary you." "And what do you call that?" "Devotion." "And what does this devotion come from?" "The irresistible sympathy which I have for you." "So you are in love with me? Say it straight out, it is much more simple." "It is possible; but if I am to say it to you one day, it is not to-day." "You will do better never to say it." "Why?" "Because only one of two things can come of it." "What?"
"Either I shall not accept: then you will have a grudge against me; or I shall accept: then you will have a sorry mistress; a woman who is nervous, ill, sad, or gay with a gaiety sadder than grief, a woman who spits blood and spends a hundred thousand francs a year. That is all very well for a rich old man like the duke, but it is very bad for a young man like you, and the proof of it is that all the young lovers I have had have very soon left me." I did not answer; I listened. This frankness, which was almost a kind of confession, the sad life, of which I caught some glimpse through the golden veil which covered it, and whose reality the poor girl sought to escape in dissipation, drink, and wakefulness, impressed me so deeply that I could not utter a single word.
"Come," continued Marguerite, "we are talking mere childishness. Give me your arm and let us go back to the dining-room. They won't know what we mean by our absence."
"Go in, if you like, but allow me to stay here."
"Marguerite, let me say to you something which you have no doubt often heard, so often that the habit of hearing it has made you believe it no longer, but which is none the less real, and which I will never repeat.""And that is . . . ?" she said, with the smile of a young mother listening to some foolish notion of her child.
"It is this, that ever since I have seen you, I know not why, you have taken a place in my life; that, if I drive the thought of you out of my mind, it always comes back; that when I met you to-day, after not having seen you for two years, you made a deeper impression on my heart and mind than ever; that, now that you have let me come to see you, now that I know you, now that I know all that is strange in you, you have become a necessity of my life, and you will drive me mad, not only if you will not love me, but if you will not let me love you."
"But, foolish creature that you are, I shall say to you, like Mme. D., 'You must be very rich, then!' Why, you don't know that I spend six or seven thousand francs a month, and that I could not live without it; you don't know, my poor friend, that I should ruin you in no time, and that your family would cast you off if you were to live with a woman like me. Let us be friends, good friends, but no more. Come and see me, we will laugh and talk, but don't exaggerate what I am worth, for I am worth very little. You have a good heart, you want some one to love you, you are too young and too sensitive to live in a world like mine. Take a married woman. You see, I speak to you frankly, like a friend."
"But what the devil are you doing there?" cried Prudence, who had come in without our bearing her, and who now stood just inside the door, with her hair half coming down and her dress undone. I recognised the hand of Gaston."We are talking sense," said Marguerite; "leave us alone; we will be back soon."
"Good, good! Talk, my children," said Prudence, going out and closing the door behind her, as if to further empbasize the tone in which she had said these words."Well, it is agreed," continued Marguerite, when we were alone, "you won't fall in love with me?" "I will go away." "So much as that?"
I had gone too far to draw back; and I was really carried away. This mingling of gaiety, sadness, candour, prostitution, her very malady, which no doubt developed in her a sensitiveness to impressions, as well as an irritability of nerves, all this made it clear to me that if from the very beginning I did not completely dominate her light and forgetful nature, she was lost to me."Come, now, do you seriously mean what you say?" she said. "Seriously." "But why didn't you say it to me sooner?" "When could I have said it?" "The day after you had been introduced to me at the Opera Comique." "I thought you would have received me very badly if I had come to see you." "Why?" "Because I had behaved so stupidly." "That's true. And yet you were already in love with me." "Yes." "And that didn't hinder you from going to bed and sleeping quite comfortably. One knows what that sort of love means." "There you are mistaken. Do you know what I did that evening, after the Opera Comique?" "No."
"I waited for you at the door of the Cafe Anglais. I followed the carriage in which you and your three friends were, and when I saw you were the only one to get down, and that you went in alone, I was very happy."Marguerite began to laugh. "What are you laughing at?" "Nothing." "Tell me, I beg of you, or I shall think you are still laughing at me." "You won't be cross?" "What right have I to be cross?" "Well, there was a sufficient reason why I went in alone." "What?" "Some one was waiting for me here." If she had thrust a knife into me she would not have hurt me more. I rose, and holding out my hand, "Goodbye," said I. "I knew you would be cross," she said; "men are frantic to know what is certain to give them pain."
"But I assure you," I added coldly, as if wishing to prove how completely I was cured of my passion, "I assure you that I am not cross. It was quite natural that some one should be waiting for you, just as it is quite natural that I should go from here at three in the morning.""Have you, too, some one waiting for you?" "No, but I must go." "Good-bye, then." "You send me away?" "Not the least in the world." "Why are you so unkind to me?" "How have I been unkind to you?" "In telling me that some one was waiting for you." "I could not help laughing at the idea that you had been so happy to see me come in alone when there was such a good reason for it."
"One finds pleasure in childish enough things, and it is too bad to destroy such a pleasure when, by simply leaving it alone, one can make somebody so happy." "But what do you think I am? I am neither maid nor duchess. I didn't know you till to-day, and I am not responsible to you for my actions. Supposing one day I should become your mistress, you are bound to know that I have had other lovers besides you. If you make scenes of jealousy like this before, what will it be after, if that after should ever exist? I never met any one like you.""That is because no one has ever loved you as I love you." "Frankly, then, you really love me?" "As much as it is possible to love, I think." "And that has lasted since--?" "Since the day I saw you go into Susse's, three years ago. "Do you know, that is tremendously fine? Well, what am to do in return?"
"Love me a little," I said, my heart beating so that I could hardly speak; for, in spite of the half-mocking smiles with which she had accompanied the whole conversation, it seemed to me that Marguerite began to share my agitation, and that the hour so long awaited was drawing near."Well, but the duke?" "What duke?" "My jealous old duke." "He will know nothing." "And if he should?" "He would forgive you." "Ah, no, he would leave me, and what would become of me?" "You risk that for some one else." "How do you know?" "By the order you gave not to admit any one to-night." "It is true; but that is a serious friend."
"For whom you care nothing, as you have shut your door against him at such an hour."
"It is not for you to reproach me, since it was in order to receive you, you and your friend."
"But I forewarn you I must be free to do as I please, without giving you the slightest details what I do. I have long wished for a young lover, who should be young and not self-willed, loving without distrust, loved without claiming the right to it. I have never found one. Men, instead of being satisfied in obtaining for a long time what they scarcely hoped to obtain once, exact from their mistresses a full account of the present, the past, and even the future. As they get accustomed to her, they want to rule her, and the more one gives them the more exacting they become. If I decide now on taking a new lover, he must have three very rare qualities: he must be confiding, submissive, and discreet.""Well, I will be all that you wish." "We shall see." "When shall we see?" "Later on." "Why?"
"Because," said Marguerite, releasing herself from my arms, and, taking from a great bunch of red camellias a single camellia, she placed it in my buttonhole, "because one can not always carry out agreements the day they are signed.""And when shall I see you again?" I said, clasping her in my arms. "When this camellia changes colour." "When will it change colour?" "To-morrow night between eleven and twelve. Are you satisfied?" "Need you ask me?" "Not a word of this either to your friend or to Prudence, or to anybody whatever." "I promise." "Now, kiss me, and we will go back to the dining-room." She held up her lips to me, smoothed her hair again, and we went out of the room, she singing, and I almost beside myself. In the next room she stopped for a moment and said to me in a low voice:
"It must seem strange to you that I am ready to take you at a moment's notice. Shall I tell you why? It is," she continued, taking my hand and placing it against her heart so that I could feel how rapidly and violently it palpitated; "it is because I shall not live as long as others, and I have promised myself to live more quickly.""Don't speak to me like that, I entreat you." "Oh, make yourself easy," she continued, laughing; "however short a time I have to live, I shall live longer than you will love me!" And she went singing into the dining-room. "Where is Nanine?" she said, seeing Gaston and Prudence alone. "She is asleep in your room, waiting till you are ready to go to bed," replied Prudence. "Poor thing, I am killing her! And now gentlemen, it is time to go." Ten minutes after, Gaston and I left the house. Marguerite shook hands with me and said good-bye. Prudence remained behind. "Well," said Gaston, when we were in the street, "what do you think of Marguerite?" "She is an angel, and I am madly in love with her." "So I guessed; did you tell her so?" "Yes." "And did she promise to believe you?" "No." "She is not like Prudence." "Did she promise to?" "Better still, my dear fellow. You wouldn't think it; but she is still not half bad, poor old Duvernoy!"
I closed the window. Armand, who was still very weak, took off his dressing-gown and lay down in bed, resting his head for a few moments on the pillow, like a man who is tired by much talking or disturbed by painful memories.
"Perhaps you have been talking too much," I said to him. "Would you rather for me to go and leave you to sleep? You can tell me the rest of the story another day.""Are you tired of listening to it?" "Quite the contrary." "Then I will go on. If you left me alone, I should not sleep."
When I returned home (he continued, without needing to pause and recollect himself, so fresh were all the details in his mind), I did not go to bed, but began to reflect over the day's adventure. The meeting, the introduction, the promise of Marguerite, had followed one another so rapidly, and so unexpectedly, that there were moments when it seemed to me I had been dreaming. Nevertheless, it was not the first time that a girl like Marguerite had promised herself to a man on the morrow of the day on which he had asked for the promise.
Though, indeed, I made this reflection, the first impression produced on me by my future mistress was so strong that it still persisted. I refused obstinately to see in her a woman like other women, and, with the vanity so common to all men, I was ready to believe that she could not but share the attraction which drew me to her.
Yet, I had before me plenty of instances to the contrary, and I had often heard that the affection of Marguerite was a thing to be had more or less dear, according to the season.
But, on the other hand, how was I to reconcile this reputation with her constant refusal of the young count whom we had found at her house? You may say that he was unattractive to her, and that, as she was splendidly kept by the duke, she would be more likely to choose a man who was attractive to her, if she were to take another lover. If so, why did she not choose Gaston, who was rich, witty, and charming, and why did she care for me, whom she had thought so ridiculous the first time she had seen me?
It is true that there are events of a moment which tell more than the courtship of a year. Of those who were at the supper, I was the only one who had been concerned at her leaving the table. I had followed her, I had been so affected as to be unable to hide it from her, I had wept as I kissed her hand. This circumstance, added to my daily visits during the two months of her illness, might have shown her that I was somewhat different from the other men she knew, and perhaps she had said to herself that for a love which could thus manifest itself she might well do what she had done so often that it had no more consequence for her.
All these suppositions, as you may see, were improbable enough; but whatever might have been the reason of her consent, one thing was certain, she had consented.
Now, I was in love with Marguerite. I had nothing more to ask of her. Nevertheless, though she was only a kept woman, I had so anticipated for myself, perhaps to poetize it a little, a hopeless love, that the nearer the moment approached when I should have nothing more to hope, the more I doubted. I did not close my eyes all night.
I scarcely knew myself. I was half demented. Now, I seemed to myself not handsome or rich or elegant enough to possess such a woman, now I was filled with vanity at the thought of it; then I began to fear lest Marguerite had no more than a few days' caprice for me, and I said to myself that since we should soon have to part, it would be better not to keep her appointment, but to write and tell her my fears and leave her. From that I went on to unlimited hope, unbounded confidence. I dreamed incredible dreams of the future; I said to myself that she should owe to me her moral and physical recovery, that I should spend my whole life with her, and that her love should make me happier than all the maidenly loves in the world.But I can not repeat to you the thousand thoughts that rose from my heart to my head, and that only faded away with the sleep that came to me at daybreak.
When I awoke it was two o'clock. The weather was superb. I don't think life ever seemed to me so beautiful and so full of possibilities. The memories of the night before came to me without shadow or hindrance, escorted gaily by the hopes of the night to come. From time to time my heart leaped with love and joy in my breast. A sweet fever thrilled me. I thought no more of the reasons which had filled my mind before I slept. I saw only the result, I thought only of the hour when I was to see Marguerite again.
It was impossible to stay indoors. My room seemed too small to contain my happiness. I needed the whole of nature to unbosom myself.
I went out. Passing by the Rue d'Antin, I saw Marguerite's coupe' waiting for her at the door. I went toward the Champs-Elysees. I loved all the people whom I met. Love gives one a kind of goodness.
After I had been walking for an hour from the Marly horses to the Rond-Point, I saw Marguerite's carriage in the distance; I divined rather than recognised it. As it was turning the corner of the Champs-Elysees it stopped, and a tall young man left a group of people with whom he was talking and came up to her. They talked for a few moments; the young man returned to his friends, the horses set out again, and as I came near the group I recognised the one who had spoken to Marguerite as the Comte de G., whose portrait I had seen and whom Prudence had indicated to me as the man to whom Marguerite owed her position. It was to him that she had closed her doors the night before; I imagined that she had stopped her carriage in order to explain to him why she had done so, and I hoped that at the same time she had found some new pretext for not receiving him on the following night.How I spent the rest of the day I do not know; I walked, smoked, talked, but what I said, whom I met, I had utterly forgotten by ten o'clock in the evening.
All I remember is that when I returned home, I spent three hours over my toilet, and I looked at my watch and my clock a hundred times, which unfortunately both pointed to the same hour.When it struck half past ten, I said to myself that it was time to go.
I lived at that time in the Rue de Provence; I followed the Rue du Mont-Blanc, crossed the Boulevard, went up the Rue Louis-le-Grand, the Rue de Port-Mahon, and the Rue d'Antin. I looked up at Marguerite's windows. There was a light. I rang. I asked the porter if Mlle. Gautier was at home. He replied that she never came in before eleven or a quarter past eleven. I looked at my watch. I intended to come quite slowly, and I had come in five minutes from the Rue de Provence to the Rue d'Antin.I walked to and fro in the street; there are no shops, and at that hour it is quite deserted. In half an hour's time
Marguerite arrived. She looked around her as she got down from her coupe', as if she were looking for some one. The carriage drove off; the stables were not at the house. Just as Marguerite was going to ring, I went up to her and said, "Good-evening."
"Ah, it is you," she said, in a tone that by no means reassured me as to her pleasure in seeing me.
This word upset all the reflections I had had during the day. Nevertheless, I was beginning to get used to her ways, and I did not leave her, as I should certainly have done once. We entered. Nanine had already opened the door."Has Prudence come?" said Marguerite. "No, madame."
"Say that she is to be admitted as soon as she comes. But first put out the lamp in the drawing-room, and if any one comes, say that I have not come back and shall not be coming back."
She was like a woman who is preoccupied with something, and perhaps annoyed by an unwelcome guest. I did not know what to do or say. Marguerite went toward her bedroom; I remained where I was."Come," she said.
She took off her hat and her velvet cloak and threw them on the bed, then let herself drop into a great armchair beside the fire, which she kept till the very beginning of summer, and said to me as she fingered her watch-chain:"Well, what news have you got for me?" "None, except that I ought not to have come to-night." "Why?" "Because you seem vexed, and no doubt I am boring you." "You are not boring me; only I am not well; I have been suffering all day. I could not sleep, and I have a frightful headache." "Shall I go away and let you go to bed?" "Oh, you can stay. If I want to go to bed I don't mind your being here." At that moment there was a ring. "Who is coming now?" she said, with an impatient movement. A few minutes after there was another ring. "Isn't there any one to go to the door? I shall have to go." She got up and said to me, "Wait here." She went through the rooms, and I heard her open the outer door. I listened. The person whom she had admitted did not come farther than the dining-room. At the first word I recognised the voice of the young Comte de N. "How are you this evening?" he said. "Not well," replied Marguerite drily. "Am I disturbing you?" "Perhaps. "How you receive me! What have I done, my dear Marguerite?"
"My dear friend, you have done nothing. I am ill; I must go to bed, so you will be good enough to go. It is sickening not to be able to return at night without your making your appearance five minutes afterward. What is it you want? For me to be your mistress? Well, I have already told you a hundred times, No; you simply worry me, and you might as well go somewhere else. I repeat to you to-day, for the last time, I don't want to have anything to do with you; that's settled. Goodbye. Here's Nanine coming in; she can light you to the door. Good-night."
Without adding another word, or listening to what the young man stammered out, Marguerite returned to the room and slammed the door. Nanine entered a moment after.
"Now understand," said Marguerite, "you are always to say to that idiot that I am not in, or that I will not see him. I am tired out with seeing people who always want the same thing; who pay me for it, and then think they are quit of me. If those who are going to go in for our hateful business only knew what it really was they would sooner be chambermaids. But no, vanity, the desire of having dresses and carriages and diamonds carries us away; one believes what one hears, for here, as elsewhere, there is such a thing as belief, and one uses up one's heart, one's body, one's beauty, little by little; one is feared like a beast of prey, scorned like a pariah, surrounded by people who always take more than they give; and one fine day one dies like a dog in a ditch, after having ruined others and ruined one's self."
"Come, come, madame, be calm," said Nanine; "your nerves are a bit upset tonight."
"There's one, now," Marguerite went on, as she took off her dress and put on a white dressing-gown, "there's one who knows very well how to find me when she is in want of me, and yet she can't do me a service decently. She knows I am waiting for an answer. She knows how anxious I am, and I am sure she is going about on her own account, without giving a thought to me.""Perhaps she had to wait." "Let us have some punch." "It will do you no good, madame," said Nanine. "So much the better. Bring some fruit, too, and a pate or a wing of chicken; something or other, at once. I am hungry." Need I tell you the impression which this scene made upon me, or can you not imagine it? "You are going to have supper with me," she said to me; "meanwhile, take a book. I am going into my dressing-room for a moment." She lit the candles of a candelabra, opened a door at the foot of the bed, and disappeared.
I began to think over this poor girl's life, and my love for her was mingled with a great pity. I walked to and fro in the room, thinking over things, when Prudence entered."Ah, you here?"' she said, "where is Marguerite?" "In her dressing-room." "I will wait. By the way, do you know she thinks you charming?" "No." "She hasn't told you?" "Not at all." "How are you here?" "I have come to pay her a visit." "At midnight?" "Why not?" "Farceur!" "She has received me, as a matter of fact, very badly." "She will receive you better by and bye." "Do you think so?" "I have some good news for her." "No harm in that. So she has spoken to you about me?" "Last night, or rather to-night, when you and your friend went. By the way, what is your friend called? Gaston R., his name is, isn't it?" "Yes," said I, not without smiling, as I thought of what Gaston had confided to me, and saw that Prudence scarcely even knew his name. "He is quite nice, that fellow; what does he do?" "He has twenty-five thousand francs a year."
"Ah, indeed! Well, to return to you. Marguerite asked me all about you: who you were, what you did, what mistresses you had had; in short, everything that one could ask about a man of your age. I told her all I knew, and added that you were a charming young man. That's all.""Thanks. Now tell me what it was she wanted to say to you last night." "Nothing at all. It was only to get rid of the count; but I have really something to see her about to-day, and I am bringing her an answer now."
At this moment Marguerite reappeared from her dressing-room, wearing a coquettish little nightcap with bunches of yellow ribbons, technically known as "cabbages." She looked ravishing. She had satin slippers on her bare feet, and was in the act of polishing her nails.
"Well," she said, seeing Prudence, "have you seen the duke?"
Marguerite opened the drawer of a side-table and threw the bank-notes into it. "Will you permit me to get into bed?" she said with a smile, as she moved toward the bed."Not only permit, but I beg of you." She turned back the covering and got into bed. "Now," said she, "come and sit down by me, and let's have a talk." Prudence was right: the answer that she had brought to Marguerite had put her into a good humour. "Will you forgive me for my bad temper tonight?" she said, taking my hand. "I am ready to forgive you as often as you like." "And you love me?" "Madly." "In spite of my bad disposition?" "In spite of all." "You swear it?" "Yes," I said in a whisper. Nanine entered, carrying plates, a cold chicken, a bottle of claret, and some strawberries. "I haven't had any punch made," said Nanine; "claret is better for you. Isn't it, sir?" "Certainly," I replied, still under the excitement of Marguerite's last words, my eyes fixed ardently upon her.
"Good," said she; "put it all on the little table, and draw it up to the bed; we will help ourselves. This is the third night you have sat up, and you must be in want of sleep. Go to bed. I don't want anything more.""Shall I lock the door?" "I should think so! And above all, tell them not to admit anybody before midday."
At five o'clock in the morning, as the light began to appear through the curtains, Marguerite said to me: "Forgive me if I send you away; but I must. The duke comes every morning; they will tell him, when he comes, that I am asleep, and perhaps he will wait until I wake."I took Marguerite's head in my hands; her loosened hair streamed about her; I gave her a last kiss, saying: "When shall I see you again?"
"Listen," she said; "take the little gilt key on the mantelpiece, open that door; bring me back the key and go. In the course of the day you shall have a letter, and my orders, for you know you are to obey blindly.""Yes; but if I should already ask for something?" "What?" "Let me have that key." "What you ask is a thing I have never done for any one." "Well, do it for me, for I swear to you that I don't love you as the others have loved you." "Well, keep it; but it only depends on me to make it useless to you, after all." "How?" "There are bolts on the door." "Wretch!" "I will have them taken off." "You love, then, a little?" "I don't know how it is, but it seems to me as if I do! Now, go; I can't keep my eyes open." I held her in my arms for a few seconds and then went.
The streets were empty, the great city was still asleep, a sweet freshness circulated in the streets that a few hours later would be filled with the noise of men. It seemed to me as if this sleeping city belonged to me; I searched my memory for the names of those whose happiness I had once envied; and I could not recall one without finding myself the happier.
To be loved by a pure young girl, to be the first to reveal to her the strange mystery of love, is indeed a great happiness, but it is the simplest thing in the world. To take captive a heart which has had no experience of attack, is to enter an unfortified and ungarrisoned city. Education, family feeling, the sense of duty, the family, are strong sentinels, but there are no sentinels so vigilant as not to be deceived by a girl of sixteen to whom nature, by the voice of the man she loves, gives the first counsels of love, all the more ardent because they seem so pure.
The more a girl believes in goodness, the more easily will she give way, if not to her lover, at least to love, for being without mistrust she is without force, and to win her love is a triumph that can be gained by any young man of five-and-twenty. See how young girls are watched and guarded! The walls of convents are not high enough, mothers have no locks strong enough, religion has no duties constant enough, to shut these charming birds in their cages, cages not even strewn with flowers. Then how surely must they desire the world which is hidden from them, how surely must they find it tempting, how surely must they listen to the first voice which comes to tell its secrets through their bars, and bless the hand which is the first to raise a corner of the mysterious veil!
But to be really loved by a courtesan: that is a victory of infinitely greater difficulty. With them the body has worn out the soul, the senses have burned up the heart, dissipation has blunted the feelings. They have long known the words that we say to them, the means we use; they have sold the love that they inspire. They love by profession, and not by instinct. They are guarded better by their calculations than a virgin by her mother and her convent; and they have invented the word caprice for that unbartered love which they allow themselves from time to time, for a rest, for an excuse, for a consolation, like usurers, who cheat a thousand, and think they have bought their own redemption by once lending a sovereign to a poor devil who is dying of hunger without asking for interest or a receipt.
Then, when God allows love to a courtesan, that love, which at first seems like a pardon, becomes for her almost without penitence. When a creature who has all her past to reproach herself with is taken all at once by a profound, sincere, irresistible love, of which she had never felt herself capable; when she has confessed her love, how absolutely the man whom she loves dominates her! How strong he feels with his cruel right to say: You do no more for love than you have done for money. They know not what proof to give. A child, says the fable, having often amused himself by crying "Help! a wolf!" in order to disturb the labourers in the field, was one day devoured by a Wolf, because those whom he had so often deceived no longer believed in his cries for help. It is the same with these unhappy women when they love seriously. They have lied so often that no one will believe them, and in the midst of their remorse they are devoured by their love.
Hence those great devotions, those austere retreats from the world, of which some of them have given an example.
But when the man who inspires this redeeming love is great enough in soul to receive it without remembering the past, when he gives himself up to it, when, in short, he loves as he is loved, this man drains at one draught all earthly emotions, and after such a love his heart will be closed to every other.
I did not make these reflections on the morning when I returned home. They could but have been the presentiment of what was to happen to me, and, despite my love for Marguerite, I did not foresee such consequences. I make these reflections to-day. Now that all is irrevocably ended, they a rise naturally out of what has taken place.
But to return to the first day of my liaison. When I reached home I was in a state of mad gaiety. As I thought of how the barriers which my imagination had placed between Marguerite and myself had disappeared, of how she was now mine; of the place I now had in her thoughts, of the key to her room which I had in my pocket, and of my right to use this key, I was satisfied with life, proud of myself, and I loved God because he had let such things be.
One day a young man is passing in the street, he brushes against a woman, looks at her, turns, goes on his way. He does not know the woman, and she has pleasures, griefs, loves, in which he has no part. He does not exist for her, and perhaps, if he spoke to her, she would only laugh at him, as Marguerite had laughed at me. Weeks, months, years pass, and all at once, when they have each followed their fate along a different path, the logic of chance brings them face to face. The woman becomes the man's mistress and loves him. How? why? Their two existences are henceforth one; they have scarcely begun to know one another when it seems as if they had known one another always, and all that had gone before is wiped out from the memory of the two lovers. It is curious, one must admit.
As for me, I no longer remembered how I had lived before that night. My whole being was exalted into joy at the memory of the words we had exchanged during that first night. Either Marguerite was very clever in deception, or she had conceived for me one of those sudden passions which are revealed in the first kiss, and which die, often enough, as suddenly as they were born.
The more I reflected the more I said to myself that Marguerite had no reason for feigning a love which she did not feel, and I said to myself also that women have two ways of loving, one of which may arise from the other: they love with the heart or with the senses. Often a woman takes a lover in obedience to the mere will of the senses, and learns without expecting it the mystery of immaterial love, and lives henceforth only through her heart; often a girl who has sought in marriage only the union of two pure affections receives the sudden revelation of physical love, that energetic conclusion of the purest impressions of the soul.
In the midst of these thoughts I fell asleep; I was awakened by a letter from Marguerite containing these words:
She did not tell me to come to see her during the day, and I dared not go; but I had so great a desire to see her before the evening that I went to the Champs-Elysees, where I again saw her pass and repass, as I had on the previous day.
At seven o'clock I was at the Vaudeville. Never had I gone to a theatre so early. The boxes filled one after another. Only one remained empty, the stage box. At the beginning of the third act I heard the door of the box, on which my eyes had been almost constantly fixed, open, and Marguerite appeared. She came to the front at once, looked around the stalls, saw me, and thanked me with a look.
That night she was marvellously beautiful. Was I the cause of this coquetry? Did she love me enough to believe that the more beautiful she looked the happier I should be? I did not know, but if that had been her intention she certainly succeeded, for when she appeared all heads turned, and the actor who was then on the stage looked to see who had produced such an effect on the audience by her mere presence there.And I had the key of this woman's room, and in three or four hours she would again be mine!
People blame those who let themselves be ruined by actresses and kept women; what astonishes me is that twenty times greater follies are not committed for them. One must have lived that life, as I have, to know how much the little vanities which they afford their lovers every day help to fasten deeper into the heart, since we have no other word for it, the love which he has for them.Prudence next took her place in the box, and a man, whom I recognised as the Comte de G., seated himself at the back. As I saw him, a cold shiver went through my heart.
Doubtless Marguerite perceived the impression made on me by the presence of this man, for she smiled to me again, and, turning her back to the count, appeared to be very attentive to the play. At the third entr'acte she turned and said two words: the count left the box, and Marguerite beckoned to me to come to her."Good-evening," she said as I entered, holding out her hand. "Good-evening," I replied to both Marguerite and Prudence. "Sit down." "But I am taking some one's place. Isn't the Comte de G. coming back?" "Yes; I sent him to fetch some sweets, so that we could talk by ourselves for a moment. Mme. Duvernoy is in the secret." "Yes, my children," said she; "have no fear. I shall say nothing." "What is the matter with you to-night?" said Marguerite, rising and coming to the back of the box and kissing me on the forehead. "I am not very well." "You should go to bed," she replied, with that ironical air which went so well with her delicate and witty face. "Where?" "At home." "You know that I shouldn't be able to sleep there." "Well, then, it won't do for you to come and be pettish here because you have seen a man in my box." "It is not for that reason." "Yes, it is. I know; and you are wrong, so let us say no more about it. You will go back with Prudence after the theatre, and you will stay there till I call. Do you understand?" "Yes." How could I disobey? "You still love me?" "Can you ask?" "You have thought of me?" "All day long." "Do you know that I am really afraid that I shall get very fond of you? Ask Prudence."
"Ah," said she, "it is amazing!" "Now, you must go back to your seat. The count will be coming back, and there is nothing to be gained by his finding you here.""Because you don't like seeing him." "No; only if you had told me that you wanted to come to the Vaudeville to-night I could have got this box for you as well as he."
"Unfortunately, he got it for me without my asking him, and he asked me to go with him; you know well enough that I couldn't refuse. All I could do was to write and tell you where I was going, so that you could see me, and because I wanted to see you myself; but since this is the way you thank me, I shall profit by the lesson.""I was wrong; forgive me." "Well and good; and now go back nicely to your place, and, above all, no more jealousy." She kissed me again, and I left the box. In the passage I met the count coming back. I returned to my seat.
After all, the presence of M. de G. in Marguerite's box was the most natural thing in the world. He had been her lover, he sent her a box, he accompanied her to the theatre; it was all quite natural, and if I was to have a mistress like Marguerite I should have to get used to her ways.
Nonetheless, I was very unhappy all the rest of the evening, and went away very sadly after having seen Prudence, the count, and Marguerite get into the carriage, which was waiting for them at the door.However, a quarter of an hour later I was at Prudence's. She had only just got in.
"How unreasonable you are! Don't you see that Marguerite can't turn the count out of doors? M. de G. has been with her for a long time; he has always given her a lot of money; he still does. Marguerite spends more than a hundred thousand francs a year; she has heaps of debts. The duke gives her all that she asks for, but she does not always venture to ask him for all that she is in want of. It would never do for her to quarrel with the count, who is worth to her at least ten thousand francs a year. Marguerite is very fond of you, my dear fellow, but your liaison with her, in her interests and in yours, ought not to be serious. You with your seven or eight thousand francs a year, what could you do toward supplying all the luxuries which a girl like that is in need of? It would not be enough to keep her carriage. Take Marguerite for what she is, for a good, bright, pretty girl; be her lover for a month, two months; give her flowers, sweets, boxes at the theatre; but don't get any other ideas into your head, and don't make absurd scenes of jealousy. You know whom you have to do with; Marguerite isn't a saint. She likes you, you are very fond of her; let the rest alone. You amaze me when I see you so touchy; you have the most charming mistress in Paris. She receives you in the greatest style, she is covered with diamonds, she needn't cost you a penny, unless you like, and you are not satisfied. My dear fellow, you ask too much!""You are right, but I can't help it; the idea that that man is her lover hurts me horribly."
"In the first place," replied Prudence; "is he still her lover? He is a man who is useful to her, nothing more. She has closed her doors to him for two days; he came this morning--she could not but accept the box and let him accompany her. He saw her home; he has gone in for a moment, he is not staying, because you are waiting here. All that, it seems to me, is quite natural. Besides, you don't mind the duke."
"Yes; but he is an old man, and I am sure that Marguerite is not his mistress. Then, it is all very well to accept one liaison, but not two. Such easiness in the matter is very like calculation, and puts the man who consents to it, even out of love, very much in the category of those who, in a lower stage of society, make a trade of their connivance, and a profit of their trade."
"Ah, my dear fellow, how old-fashioned you are! How many of the richest and most fashionable men of the best families I have seen quite ready to do what I advise you to do, and without an effort, without shame, without remorse, Why, one sees it every day. How do you suppose the kept women in Paris could live in the style they do, if they had not three or four lovers at once? No single fortune, however large, could suffice for the expenses of a woman like Marguerite. A fortune of five hundred thousand francs a year is, in France, an enormous fortune; well, my dear friend, five hundred thousand francs a year would still be too little, and for this reason: a man with such an income has a large house, horses, servants, carriages; he shoots, has friends, often he is married, he has children, he races, gambles, travels, and what not. All these habits are so much a part of his position that he can not forego them without appearing to have lost all his money, and without causing scandal. Taking it all round, with five hundred thousand francs a year he can not give a woman more than forty or fifty thousand francs in the year, and that is already a good deal. Well, other lovers make up for the rest of her expenses. With Marguerite, it is still more convenient; she has chanced by a miracle on an old man worth ten millions, whose wife and daughter are dead; who has only some nephews, themselves rich, and who gives her all she wants without asking anything in return. But she can not ask him for more than seventy thousand francs a year; and I am sure that if she did ask for more, despite his health and the affection he has for her he would not give it to her.
"All the young men of twenty or thirty thousand francs a year at Paris, that is to say, men who have only just enough to live on in the society in which they mix, know perfectly well, when they are the lovers of a woman like Marguerite, that she could not so much as pay for the rooms she lives in and the servants who wait upon her with what they give her. They do not say to her that they know it; they pretend not to see anything, and when they have had enough of it they go their way. If they have the vanity to wish to pay for everything they get ruined, like the fools they are, and go and get killed in Africa, after leaving a hundred thousand francs of debt in Paris. Do you think a woman is grateful to them for it? Far from it. She declares that she has sacrificed her position for them, and that while she was with them she was losing money. These details seem to you shocking? Well, they are true. You are a very nice fellow; I like you very much. I have lived with these women for twenty years; I know what they are worth, and I don't want to see you take the caprice that a pretty girl has for you too seriously. "Then, besides that," continued Prudence; "admit that Marguerite loves you enough to give up the count or the duke, in case one of them were to discover your liaison and to tell her to choose between him and you, the sacrifice that she would make for you would be enormous, you can not deny it. What equal sacrifice could you make for her, on your part, and when you had got tired of her, what could you do to make up for what you had taken from her? Nothing. You would have cut her off from the world in which her fortune and her future were to be found; she would have given you her best years, and she would be forgotten. Either you would be an ordinary man, and, casting her past in her teeth, you would leave her, telling her that you were only doing like her other lovers, and you would abandon her to certain misery; or you would be an honest man, and, feeling bound to keep her by you, you would bring inevitable trouble upon yourself, for a liaison which is excusable in a young man, is no longer excusable in a man of middle age. It becomes an obstacle to every thing; it allows neither family nor ambition, man's second and last loves. Believe me, then, my friend, take things for what they are worth, and do not give a kept woman the right to call herself your creditor, no matter in what."
It was well argued, with a logic of which I should have thought Prudence incapable. I had nothing to reply, except that she was right; I took her hand and thanked her for her counsels.
"Come, come," said she, "put these foolish theories to flight, and laugh over them. Life is pleasant, my dear fellow; it all depends on the colour of the glass through which one sees it. Ask your friend Gaston; there's a man who seems to me to understand love as I understand it. All that you need think of, unless you are quite a fool, is that close by there is a beautiful girl who is waiting impatiently for the man who is with her to go, thinking of you, keeping the whole night for you, and who loves you, I am certain. Now, come to the window with me, and let us watch for the count to go; he won't be long in leaving the coast clear."
Prudence opened the window, and we leaned side by side over the balcony. She watched the few passers, I reflected. All that she had said buzzed in my head, and I could not help feeling that she was right; but the genuine love which I had for Marguerite had some difficulty in accommodating itself to such a belief. I sighed from time to time, at which Prudence turned, and shrugged her shoulders like a physician who has given up his patient.
"How one realizes the shortness of life," I said to myself, "by the rapidity of sensations! I have only known Marguerite for two days, she has only been my mistress since yesterday, and she has already so completely absorbed my thoughts, my heart, and my life that the visit of the Comte de G. is a misfortune for me."At last the count came out, got into his carriage and disappeared. Prudence closed the window. At the same instant Marguerite called to us: "Come at once," she said; "they are laying the table, and we'll have supper." When I entered, Marguerite ran to me, threw her arms around my neck and kissed me with all her might. "Are we still sulky?" she said to me. "No, it is all over," replied Prudence. "I have given him a talking to, and he has promised to be reasonable." "Well and good." In spite of myself I glanced at the bed; it was not unmade. As for Marguerite, she was already in her white dressing-gown. We sat down to table.
Charm, sweetness, spontaneity, Marguerite had them all, and I was forced from time to time to admit that I had no right to ask of her anything else; that many people would be very happy to be in my place; and that, like Virgil's shepherd, I had only to enjoy the pleasures that a god, or rather a goddess, set before me.
I tried to put in practice the theories of Prudence, and to be as gay as my two companions; but what was natural in them was on my part an effort, and the nervous laughter, whose source they did not detect, was nearer to tears than to mirth.
At last the supper was over and I was alone with Marguerite. She sat down as usual on the hearthrug before the fire and gazed sadly into the flames. What was she thinking of? I know not. As for me, I looked at her with a mingling of love and terror, as I thought of all that I was ready to suffer for her sake."Do you know what I am thinking of?" "No." "Of a plan that has come into my head." "And what is this plan?"
"I can't tell you yet, but I can tell you what the result would be. The result would be that in a month I should be free, I should have no more debts, and we could go and spend the summer in the country.""And you can't tell me by what means?" "No, only love me as I love you, and all will succeed." "And have you made this plan all by yourself?" "Yes. "And you will carry it out all by yourself?" "I alone shall have the trouble of it," said Marguerite, with a smile which I shall never forget, "but we shall both partake its benefits." I could not help flushing at the word benefits; I thought of Manon Lescaut squandering with Desgrieux the money of M. de B. I replied in a hard voice, rising from my seat: "You must permit me, my dear Marguerite, to share only the benefits of those enterprises which I have conceived and carried out myself." "What does that mean?" "It means that I have a strong suspicion that M. de G. is to be your associate in this pretty plan, of which I can accept neither the cost nor the benefits "What a child you are! I thought you loved me. I was mistaken; all right."
She rose, opened the piano and began to play the Invitation a la Valse, as far as the famous passage in the major which always stopped her. Was it through force of habit, or was it to remind me of the day when we first met? All I know is that the melody brought back that recollection, and, coming up to her, I took her head between my hands and kissed her. "You forgive me?" I said.
"You see I do," she answered; "but observe that we are only at our second day, and already I have had to forgive you something. Is this how you keep your promise of blind obedience?"
"What can I do, Marguerite? I love you too much and I am jealous of the least of your thoughts. What you proposed to me just now made me frantic with delight, but the mystery in its carrying out hurts me dreadfully."
"Come, let us reason it out," she said, taking both my hands and looking at me with a charming smile which it was impossible to resist, "You love me, do you not? and you would gladly spend two or three months alone with me in the country? I too should be glad of this solitude a deux, and not only glad of it, but my health requires it. I can not leave Paris for such a length of time without putting my affairs in order, and the affairs of a woman like me are always in great confusion; well, I have found a way to reconcile everything, my money affairs and my love for you; yes, for you, don't laugh; I am silly enough to love you! And here you are taking lordly airs and talking big words. Child, thrice child, only remember that I love you, and don't let anything disturb you. Now, is it agreed?" "I agree to all you wish, as you know."
"Then, in less than a month's time we shall be in some village, walking by the river side, and drinking milk. Does it seem strange that Marguerite Gautier should speak to you like that? The fact is, my friend, that when this Paris life, which seems to make me so happy, doesn't burn me, it wearies me, and then I have sudden aspirations toward a calmer existence which might recall my childhood. One has always had a childhood, whatever one becomes. Don't be alarmed; I am not going to tell you that I am the daughter of a colonel on half-pay, and that I was brought up at Saint-Denis. I am a poor country girl, and six years ago I could not write my own name. You are relieved, aren't you? Why is it you are the first whom I have ever asked to share the joy of this desire of mine? I suppose because I feel that you love me for myself and not for yourself, while all the others have only loved me for themselves.
"I have often been in the country, but never as I should like to go there. I count on you for this easy happiness; do not be unkind, let me have it. Say this to yourself: 'She will never live to be old, and I should some day be sorry for not having done for her the first thing she asked of me, such an easy thing to do!'"What could I reply to such words, especially with the memory of a first night of love, and in the expectation of a second? An hour later I held Marguerite in my arms, and, if she had asked me to commit a crime, I would have obeyed her. At six in the morning I left her, and before leaving her I said: "Till to-night!" She kissed me more warmly than ever, but said nothing. During the day I received a note containing these words:
"DEAR CHILD: I am not very well, and the doctor has ordered quiet. I shall go to bed early to-night and shall not see you. But, to make up, I shall expect you tomorrow at twelve. I love you."My first thought was: She is deceiving me!
A cold sweat broke out on my forehead, for I already loved this woman too much not to be overwhelmed by the suspicion. And yet, I was bound to expect such a thing almost any day with Marguerite, and it had happened to me often enough with my other mistresses, without my taking much notice of it. What was the meaning of the hold which this woman had taken upon my life?
Then it occurred to me, since I had the key, to go and see her as usual. In this way I should soon know the truth, and if I found a man there I would strike him in the face.
Meanwhile I went to the Champs-Elysees. I waited there four hours. She did not appear. At night I went into all the theatres where she was accustomed to go. She was in none of them.
Evidently I could get in, since I had the key, but, fearing foolish scandal, I went away. Only I did not return home; I could not leave the street, and I never took my eyes off Marguerite's house. It seemed to me that there was still something to be found out, or at least that my suspicions were about to be confirmed.
About midnight a carriage that I knew well stopped before No. 9. The Comte de G. got down and entered the house, after sending away the carriage. For a moment I hoped that the same answer would be given to him as to me, and that I should see him come out; but at four o'clock in the morning I was still awaiting him.I have suffered deeply during these last three weeks, but that is nothing, I think, in comparison with what I suffered that night.