La Dame aux camélias (Camille)

Chapter 1


IT is my considered view that no one can invent fictional characters without first having made a lengthy study of people, just as it is impossible for anyone to speak a language that has not been properly mastered.

Since I am not yet of an age to invent, I must make do with telling a tale.

I therefore invite the reader to believe that this story is true. All the characters who appear in it, with the exception of the heroine, are still living.

I would further add that there are reliable witnesses in Paris for most of the particulars which I bring together here, and they could vouch for their accuracy should my word not be enough. By a singular turn of events, I alone was able to write them down since I alone was privy to the very last details without which it would have been quite impossible to piece together a full and satisfying account.

It was in this way that these particulars came to my knowledge.

On the 12th day of March 1847, in the rue Laffitte, I happened upon a large yellow notice announcing a sale of furniture and valuable curios. An estate was to be disposed of, the owner having died. The notice did not name the dead person, but the sale was to be held at 9 rue d'Antin on the 16th, between noon and five o'clock.

The notice also stated that the apartments and contents could be viewed on the 13th and 14th.

I have always been interested in curios. I promised myself I would not miss this opportunity, if not of actually buying, then at least of looking.

The following day, I directed my steps towards 9 rue d'Antin.

It was early, and yet a good crowd of visitors had already gathered in the apartment? men for the most part, but also a number of ladies who, though dressed in velvet and wearing Indian shawls, and all with their own elegant broughams standing at the door, were examining the riches set out before them with astonished, even admiring eyes.

After a while, I quite saw the reason for their admiration and astonishment, for having begun myself to look around I had no difficulty in recognizing that I was in the apartment of a kept woman. Now if there is one thing that ladies of fashion desire to see above all else ?and there were society ladies present ? it is the rooms occupied by those women who have carriages which spatter their own with mud every day of the week, who have their boxes at the Opera or the Theatre-Italien just as they do, and indeed next to theirs, and who display for all Paris to see the insolent opulence of their beauty, diamonds and shameless conduct.

The woman in whose apartments I now found myself was dead: the most virtuous of ladies were thus able to go everywhere, even into the bedroom. Death had purified the air of this glittering den of iniquity, and in any case they could always say, if they needed the excuse, that they had done no more than come to a sale without knowing whose rooms these were. I had read the notices, they had wanted to view what the notices advertised and mark out their selections in advance. It could not have been simpler ?though this did not prevent them from looking through these splendid things for traces of the secret life of a courtesan of which they had doubtless been given very strange accounts.

Unfortunately, the mysteries had died with the goddess, and in spite of their best endeavours these good ladies found only what had been put up for sale since the time of death, and could detect nothing of what had been sold while the occupant had been alive.

But there was certainly rich booty to be had. The furniture was superb. Rosewood and Buhl-work pieces, Severs vases and blue china porcelain, Dresden figurines, satins, velvet and lace, everything in fact.

I wandered from room to room in the wake of these inquisitive aristocratic ladies who had arrived before me. They went into a bedroom hung with Persian fabrics and I was about to go in after them, when they came out again almost immediately, smiling and as it were put to shame by this latest revelation. The effect was to make me even keener to see inside. It was the dressing-room, complete down to the very last details, in which the dead woman's profligacy had seemingly reached its height.

On a large table standing against one wall ?it measured a good six feet by three ?shone the finest treasures of Aucoc and Odiot. It was a magnificent collection, and among the countless objects each so essential to the appearance of the kind of woman in whose home we had gathered, there was not one that was not made of gold or silver. But it was a collection that could only have been assembled piece by piece, and clearly more than one love had gone into its making.

I, who was not the least put out by the sight of the dressing-room of a kept woman, spent some time agreeably inspecting its contents, neglecting none of them, and I noticed that all these magnificently wrought implements bore different initials and all manner of coronets.

As I contemplated all these things, each to my mind standing for a separate prostitution of the poor girl, I reflected that God had been merciful to her since He had not suffered her to live long enough to undergo the usual punishment but had allowed her to die at the height of her wealth and beauty, long before the coming of old age, that first death of courtesans.

Indeed, what sadder sight is there than vice in old age, especially in a woman? It has no dignity and is singularly unattractive. Those everlasting regrets, not for wrong turnings taken but for wrong calculations made and money foolishly spent, are among the most harrowing things that can be heard. I once knew a former woman of easy virtue of whose past life there remained only a daughter who was almost as beautiful as the mother had once been, or so her contemporaries said. This poor child, to whom her mother never said 'You are my daughter' except to order her to keep her now that she was old just as she had been kept when she was young, this wretched creature was called Louise and, in obedience to her mother, she sold herself without inclination or passion or pleasure, rather as she might have followed an honest trade had it ever entered anyone's head to teach her one.

The continual spectacle of debauchery, at so tender an age, compounded by her continuing ill- health, had extinguished in the girl the knowledge of good and evil which God had perhaps given her but which no one had ever thought to nurture.

I shall always remember that young girl who walked along the boulevards almost every day at the same hour. Her mother was always with her, escorting her as assiduously as a true mother might have accompanied her daughter. I was very young in those days and ready enough to fall in with the easy morality of the times. Yet I recall that the sight of such scandalous chaperoning filled me with contempt and disgust.

Add to all this that no virgin's face ever conveyed such a feeling of innocence nor any comparable expression of sadness and suffering.

You would have said it was the image of Resignation itself.

And then one day, the young girl's face lit up. In the midst of the debauches which her mother organized for her, it suddenly seemed to this sinful creature that God had granted her one happiness. And after all why should God, who had made her weak and helpless, abandon her without consolation to struggle on beneath the oppressive burden of her life? One day, then, she perceived that she was with child, and that part of her which remained pure trembled with joy. The soul finds refuge in the strangest sanctuaries. Louise ran to her mother to tell her the news that had filled her with such happiness. It is a shameful thing to have to say ?but we do not write gratuitously of immorality here, we relate a true incident and one perhaps which we would be better advised to leave untold if we did not believe that it is essential from time to time to make public the martyrdom of these creatures who are ordinarily condemned without a hearing and despised without trial ? it is, we say, a matter for shame, but the mother answered her daughter saying that as things stood they scarcely had enough for two, and that they would certainly not have enough for three; that such children serve no useful purpose; and that a pregnancy is so much time wasted.

The very next day, a midwife (of whom we shall say no more than that she was a friend of the mother)called to see Louise, who remained for a few days in her bed from which she rose paler and weaker than before.

Three months later, some man took pity on her and undertook her moral and physical salvation. But this latest blow had been too great and Louise died of the after effects of the miscarriage she had suffered.

The mother still lives. How? God alone knows.

This story had come back to me as I stood examining the sets of silver toilet accessories, and I must have been lost in thought for quite some time. For by now the apartment was empty save for myself and a porter who, from the doorway, was eyeing me carefully lest I should try to steal anything.

I went up to this good man in whom I inspired such grave anxieties.

'Excuse me, ' I said, 'I wonder if you could tell me the name of the person who lived here?'

'Mademoiselle Marguerite Gautier.'

I knew this young woman by name and by sight.

'What!' I said to the porter. 'Marguerite Gautier is dead?'

'Yes, sir.'

'When did it happen?'

'Three weeks ago, I think.'

'But why are people being allowed to view her apartment?'

'The creditors thought it would be good for trade. People can get the effect of the hangings and the furniture in advance. Encourages people to buy, you understand.'

'So she had debts, then?'

'Oh yes, sir! Lots of'em.'

'But I imagine the sale will cover them?'

'Over and above.'

'And who stands to get the balance?'

'The family.'

'She had a family?'

'Seems she did.'

'Thank you very much.'

The porter, now reassured as to my intentions, touched his cap and I left.

'Poor girl, ' I said to myself as I returned home, 'she must have died a sad death, for in her world, people only keep their friends as long as they stay fit and well.' And in spite of myself, I lamented the fate of Marguerite Gautier.

All this will perhaps seem absurd to many people, but I have a boundless forbearance towards courtesans which I shall not even trouble to enlarge upon here.

One day, as I was on my way to collect a passport from the prefecture, I saw down one of the adjacent streets, a young woman being taken away by two policemen. Now I have no idea what she had done. All I can say is that she was weeping bitterly and clasping to her a child only a few months old from which she was about to be separated by her arrest. From that day until this, I have been incapable of spurning any woman on sight.



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