A CONSIDERABLE time elapsed without my hearing a word about Armand, but on the other hand the subject of Marguerite had come up a great deal.
I do not know if you have noticed, but it only takes the name of someone who should in all likelihood have remained unknown or at least of no particular interest to you, to be pronounced once in your hearing, for all sorts of details to collect round that name, and for you then to have all your friends speak about a subject of which they had never spoken to you before. Next thing, you discover that the person in question was there, just out of range, all the while. You realize that your paths have crossed many times without your noticing, and you find in the events which others recount some tangible link or affinity with certain events in your own past. I had not quite reached that point with Marguerite, since I had seen her, met her, knew her by her face and habits. Yet ever since the auction, her name had cropped up so frequently in my hearing and, in the circumstances which I have related in the previous chapter, her name had become associated with sorrow so profound, that my surprise had gone on growing and my curiosity had increased.
The result was that now I never approached any friends, with whom I had never spoken of Marguerite, without saying:
'Did you know someone called Marguerite Gautier?'
'The Lady of the Camellias?'
These 'Rather!'sometimes came with smiles which left no possible doubt as to their meaning.
'Well, what kind of girl was she?' I would go on.
'A very decent sort. '
'Is that all? '
'Heavens! I should hope so. A few more brains and perhaps a bit more heart than the rest of them. '
'But you know nothing particular about her? '
'She ruined Baron de G.'
'She was the mistress of the old Duke de.'
'Was she really his mistress?'
'That's what they say: at any rate, he gave her a great deal of money.'
Always the same general details.
But I would have been interested to learn a little about the affair between Marguerite and Armand.
One day, I chanced upon one of those men who live habitually on intimate terms with the most notorious courtesans. I questioned him.
'Did you know Marguerite Gautier?'
The answer was that same 'Rather!'
'What sort of girl was she?'
'A fine-looking, good-hearted type. Her death was a great sadness to me.'
'She had a lover called Armand Duval, didn't she?'
'Tall chap with fair hair?'
'Yes, she did.'
'And what was this Armand like?'
'A young fellow who threw away the little he had on her, I believe, and was forced to give her up. They say it affected his reason.'
'What about her?'
'She loved him very much too, they also say, but as girls of her sort love. You should never ask more of them than they can give.'
'What became of Armand?'
'Couldn't say. We didn't know him all that well. He stayed five or six months with Marguerite, in the country. When she came back to town, he went off somewhere.'
'And you haven't seen him since?'
I had not seen Armand again either. I had begun to wonder if, the day he called on me, the recent news of Marguerite's death had not exaggerated the love he had once felt for her and therefore his grief, and I told myself that perhaps, in forgetting the dead girl, he had also forgotten his promise to return to see me.
Such a hypotheses would have been plausible enough with anybody else, but in Armand's despair there had been a note of real sincerity and, moving from one extreme to the other, I imagined that his grief could well have turned into sickness and that, if I had not heard from him, then it was because he was ill, dead even.
Despite myself, I still felt an interest in this young man. It may be that my interest was not without an element of selfishness; perhaps I had glimpsed a touching love story behind his grief, perhaps, in short, my desire to be acquainted with it loomed large in the concern I felt about Armand's silence.
Since Monsieur Duval did not return to see me, I resolved to go to him. A pretext was not difficult to find. Unfortunately, I did not know his address, and of all those I had questioned, no one had been able to tell me what it was.
I went to the rue d'Antin. Perhaps Marguerite's porter knew where Armand lived. There had been a change of porter. He did not know any more than I did. I then asked in which cemetery Mademoiselle Gautier had been buried. It was Montmartre cemetery.
April had come round again, the weather was fine, the graves would no longer have the mournful, desolate look which winter gives them; in a word, it was already warm enough for the living to remember the dead and visit them. I went to the cemetery, telling myself: 'One quick look at Marguerite's grave, and I shall know whether Armand is still grieving and perhaps discover what has become of him.'
I entered the keeper's lodge and asked him if, on the 22nd of the month of February, a woman named Marguerite Gautier had not been buried in Montmartre cemetery.
The man looked through a fat ledger in which the names of all those who come to their final place of rest are entered and given a number, and he answered that on 22 February, at noon, a woman of that name had indeed been interred.
I asked if he could get someone to take me to the grave for, without a guide, there is no way of finding one's way around this city of the dead which has its streets like the cities of the living. The keeper called a gardener, to whom he gave the necessary details but who cut him short, saying: 'I know, I know...Oh! that grave is easy enough to pick out, ' he went on, turning to me.
'Why?' I said.
'Because it's got different flowers from all the others.'
'Are you the person who looks after it?'
'Yes, sir, and I could only wish all relatives took as good care of the departed as the young man who asked me to look after that one.'
Several turnings later, the gardener stopped and said:
'Here we are.'
And indeed, before my eyes, were flowers arranged in a square which no one would ever have taken for a grave if a white marble stone with a name on it had not proclaimed it to be so.
This marble block was set upright, iron railings marked the boundary of the plot that had been bought, and every inch of ground was covered with white camellias.
'What do you say to that?' said the gardener.
'It's very beautiful.'
'And every time a camellia withers, my orders are to put another one in its place.'
'And who gave you your orders?'
'A young chap who cried a lot the first time he came. An old gentleman friend of the departed, I'll be bound, because they do say she was a bit of a one, you know. I hear tell she was very bonny. Did you know her, sir?'
'Like the other chap, ' the gardener said with a knowing grin.
'No, I never spike to her.'
'But you've come to see her here; that's very nice of you, because people who come to see the poor girl don't exactly clutter up the cemetery.'
'So no one comes?'
'Nobody, except that young chap who came once.'
'And he never returned?'
'No, but he'll come as soon as he gets back.'
'He's away travelling, then?'
'And do you know where he is?'
'I do believe he's gone to see Mademoiselle Gautier's sister.'
'What's he doing there?'
'He's going to ask authorization to exhume the body and have it put somewhere else.'
'Why shouldn't he leave her here?'
'You know, sir, people get queer ideas about the departed. See it all the time, we do. This plot was bought for five years only, and that young chap wants a plot in perpetuity and a larger bit of ground: in the new part would be best.'
'What do you call the new part?'
'The new plots that are being sold just now, to your left. If the cemetery had always been kept like it is nowadays, there wouldn't have been another like it in the world; but there's still a lot to do before it's just like it should be. And then, folk are so queer.'
'What do you mean?'
'I mean that there's people who even bring their pride in here. Take this Mademoiselle Gautier. Seems she'd been around a bit, if you'll pardon the expression. She's dead now, is that poor young woman; there's as much left of her as of other women you couldn't say a word against whose resting places we keep watering every day. Well now, when the relatives of them as are buried next to her found out who she was, blow me if they didn't up and say they was against putting her here, and that there ought to be ground set apart for women of her sort, like there is for the poor. Ever hear the like of it? I told them straight, I did; very well-to-do folks who can't even come four times a year to pay their respects to their departed. They bring their own flowers and some flowers they are too, are very particular about arranging upkeep for them as they say they mourn, inscribe on their tombstones the tears they never shed, and are very fussy about who is buried next door. Believe me if you like, sir, I didn't know this young lady, I've no idea what she got up to. But I tell you, I love that poor little girl and I take good care of her, and I let her have the camellias at a very fair price. Of all the departed, she's my favourite. Here, sir, we're obliged to love the dead, for we're kept so busy that we hardly have time to love anything else.'
I looked at this man, and some of my readers will understand, without my having to explain it to them, what I felt as I heard his words.
He sensed my feelings, no doubt, for he went on:
'They say there were gents who ruined themselves for that girl, and that she had lovers who worshipped her; well, when I think that there's not one comes and buys her a single flower, then I say that it's peculiar and sad. Though this one can't complain. She's got a grave, and if there's only one as remembers her, he does right by the others as well. But we've got poor girls here of the same sort and the same age that get 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 looks out for them once they're dead! It's not always very cheery, this job of ours, especially when you've got a bit of feeling left in you. But what do you expect? I can't help it. I got a fine- looking grown-up daughter of twenty, and whenever some dead girl her age is brought in, I think of her, and be it some great lady or a trollop, I can't help being upset.
But I expect I'm wearying you with all this talk, and you didn't come here to listen to me going on. I was told to take you to Mademoiselle Gautier's grave and here you are. Is there anything else I can do for you?'
'Do you know Monsieuer Duval's address?' I asked the man.
'Yes, he lives in the rue de, or at least that's where I went to get paid for all the flowers you see here.'
'Thank you, my man.'
I cast a final glance at the flower- strewn grave whose depths, despite myself, I would have gladly plumbed for a sight of what the earth had done with the beautiful creature who had been lowered into it, and then I came away, feeling very sad.
'Do you want to see Monsieur Duval, sir?' continued the gardener, who walked at my side.
'The thing is, I'm pretty near certain that he's not back yet. Otherwise I'd have seen him here already.'
'So you are convinced that he hasn't forgotten Marguerite?'
'Not just convinced, I'd bet anything that this wanting to move her to another grave is his way of wanting to see her again.'
'How do you mean?'
'The first thing he said when he came to the cemetery was: "What do I have to do to see her again?" That can only happen if the body is shifted to another grave, and I told him all about the formalities that have to be gone through to secure a transfer, because, you know, before bodies can be moved from one grave to another, they must be identified, and only the family can authorize the operation which has to be supervised by a police superintendent. It was to get this authorization that Monsieur Duval went to see Mademoiselle Gautier's sister, and his first call will obviously be on us.'
We had arrived at the cemetery gates; I thanked the gardener again, slipping a few coins into his hand, and I went round to the address he had given me.
Armand was not back.
I left a note for him, asking him to come and see me as soon as he arrived, or to let me know where I might find him.
The following morning, I received a letter from Duval which informed me of his return
and asked me to drop by, adding that, being worn out by fatigue, it was impossible for him
to go out.