Etext scanned by Dianne Bean using OmniPage Pro software donated by Caere.
CAMILLE (LA DAME AUX CAMILIAS)
by ALEXANDRE DUMAS fils
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?”
“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?”
“She had a family?”
“It seems so.”
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.
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:
Manon to Marguerite.
It was signed Armand Duval.
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 grand-nephew, 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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.
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.
A good while elapsed before I heard anything more of Armand, but, on the other hand, I was constantly hearing of Marguerite.
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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
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 resting-place 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.
“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.”
“He never came back again?”
“No, but he will when he gets home.”
“He is away somewhere?”
“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.
“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.”
“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?”
“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 re-entered 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.”
“You will tell me all about it later on, my friend,” I said to him; “you are not strong enough yet.”
“It is a warm evening, I have eaten my ration of chicken,” he said to me, smiling; “I have no fever, we have nothing to do, I will tell it to you now.”
“Since you really wish it, I will listen.”
This is what he told me, and I have scarcely changed a word of the touching story.
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!”
“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?”
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.”
“Perhaps that was only in order to put off the fatal moment.”
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.
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 Champs-Elysees. 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