ILLNESSES like the one to which Armand had succumbed have at least this much to be said for them: they either kill you at once or let themselves be conquered very quickly.
A fortnight after the events which I have just recounted, Armand was convalescing very satisfactorily, and we were bound by a firm friendship. I had scarcely left his sick room throughout the whole time of his illness.
Spring had dispensed its flowers, leaves, birds, and harmonies in abundance, and my friend's window cheerfully overlooked his garden which wafted its healthy draughts up to him.
The doctor had allowed him to get up, and we often sat talking by the open window at that hour of the day when the sun is at its warmest, between noon and two o'clock.
I studiously avoided speaking to him of Marguerite, for I was still afraid that the name would reawaken some sad memory which slumbered beneath the sick man's apparent calm. But Armand, on the contrary, seemed to take pleasure in speaking of her? not as he had done previously, with tears in his eyes, but with a gentle smile which allayed my fears for his state of mind.
I had noticed that, since his last visit to the cemetery and the spectacle which had been responsible for causing his serious breakdown, the measure of his mental anguish seemed to have been taken by his physical illness, and Marguerite's death had ceased to present itself through the eyes of the past. A kind of solace had come with the certainty he had acquired and, to drive off the somber image which often thrust itself into his mind, he plunged into the happier memories of his affair with Marguerite and appeared willing to recall no others.
His body was too exhausted by his attack of fever, and even by its treatment, to allow his mind to acknowledge any violent emotions, and despite himself the universal joy of spring by which Armand was surrounded directed his thoughts to happier images.
All this time, he had stubbornly refused to inform his family of the peril he was in, and when the danger was past, his father still knew nothing of his illness.
One evening, we had remained longer by the window than usual. The weather had been superb and the sun was setting in a brilliant twilight of blue and gold. Although we were in Paris, the greenery around us seemed to cut us off from the world, and only the rare sound of a passing carriage from time to time disturbed our conversation.
'It was about this time of year, and during the evening of a day like today, that I first met Marguerite, ' said Armand, heeding his own thoughts rather than what I was saying.
I made no reply.
Then he turned to me and said:
'But I must tell you the story; you shall turn it into a book which no one will believe, though it may be interesting to write.'
'You shall tell it to me some other time, my friend, ' I told him, 'you are still not well enough.'
'The evening is warm, I have eaten my breast of chicken, ' he said with a smile; 'I am not the least feverish, we have nothing else to do, I shall tell you everything.'
'Since you are so set on it, I'll listen.'
'It's a very simple tale, ' he then added, 'and I shall tell it in the order in which it happened. If at some stage you do make something of it, you are perfectly free to tell it another way.'
Here is what he told me, and I have scarcely changed a word of his moving story.
Yes (Armand went on, letting his head fall against the back of his armchair), yes, it was on an evening like this! I had spent the day in the country with one of my friends, Gaston R. We had returned to Paris in the evening and, for want of anything better to do, had gone to the Theatre des Varietes.
During one of the intervals, we left our seats and, in the corridor, we saw a tall woman whom my friend greeted with a bow.
'Who was that you just bowed to?' I asked him.
'Marguerite Gautier, ' he replied.
'It strikes me she is very much changed, for I didn't recognize her, ' I said with a tremor which you will understand in a moment.
'She's been ill, The poor girl's not long for this world.'
I recall these words as though they had been said to me yesterday.
Now, my friend, I must tell you that for two years past, whenever I met her, the sight of that girl had always made a strange impression on me.
Without knowing why, I paled and my heart beat violently. I have a friend who dabbles in the occult, and he would call what I felt an affinity of fluids; I myself believe quite simply that I was destined to fall in love with Marguerite, and that this was a presentiment.
The fact remains that she made a strong impression on me. Several of my friends had seen how I reacted, and they had hooted with laughter when they realized from what quarter that impression came.
The first time I had seen her was in the Place de la Bourse, outside Susse's. An open barouche was standing there, and a woman in white had stepped out of it. A murmur of admiration had greeted her as she entered the shop. For my part, I stood rooted to the spot from the time she went in until the moment she came out. Through the windows, I watched her in the shop as she chose what she had come to buy. I could have gone in, but I did not dare. I had no idea what sort of woman she was and was afraid that she would guess my reason for entering the shop and be offended. However I did not believe that I was destined ever to see her again.
She was elegantly dressed; she wore a muslin dress with full panels, a square Indian shawl embroidered at the corners with gold thread and silk flowers, a Leghorn straw hat and a single bracelet, one of those thick gold chains which were then just beginning to be fashionable.
She got into her barouche and drove off.
One of the shop-assistants remained in the doorway with his eyes following the carriage of his elegant customer. I went up to him and asked him to tell me the woman's name.
'That's Mademoiselle Marguerite Gautier, ' he replied.
I did not dare ask him for her address and I walked away.
The memory of this vision ?for, truly, vision it was ?did not fade from my mind like many other visions I had already seen, and I searched everywhere for this woman in white so regal in her beauty.
A few days after this, there was a big production at the Opera-Comique. I went along. The first person I saw, in a stage-box in the balcony, was Marguerite Gautier.
The young man I was with recognized her too, for he said, mentioning her by name:
'Take a look at that pretty creature.'
Just then, Marguerite turned her opera glasses in our direction, saw my friend, smiled at him and gestured that he was to come and pay his respects.
'I'll go along and wish her a pleasant evening, ' he told me, 'I'll be back in a moment.'
I could not help myself saying: 'You're a lucky man!'
'In what way?'
'Going to see that woman.'
'Are you in love with her?'
'No, ' I said, reddening, for I really did not know how I stood in the matter, 'but I would like to get to know her.'
'Come with me, I'll introduce you.'
'Ask her permission first.'
'Oh, nonsense! There's no need to be formal with her. Come on.'
These words of his were hurtful to me. I trembled at the thought that I should learn for certain that Marguerite was not worthy of my feelings for her.
In a book by Alphonse Karr, entitled Ain Rauchen, there is a man who, one evening, follows a very elegant woman with whom he has fallen in love at first sight, so beautiful is she. Merely to kiss the hand of this woman, he feels he has strength enough for any undertaking, the will to conquer all and the courage to do anything. He scarcely dares glance at the slim ankles which she reveals in her efforts to avoid dirtying her dress as it drags on the ground. As he is dreaming of the things he would do to possess her, she stops him at a street corner and asks if he would like to come upstairs with her.
He turns his head away, crosses the street and returns home sadly.
I now remembered this study and I, who would gladly have suffered for her, was afraid that this woman might accept me too quickly and give me too promptly a love which I should have desired to earn through some long delay or great sacrifice. Of such stuff are we men made; and it is fortunate indeed that the imagination indulges the senses with fancies of this kind, and that the desires of the body make such concessions to the dreams of the soul.
So, had someone said to me: 'You shall have this woman tonight and tomorrow you shall be put to death', I would have accepted. Had I been told: 'Give her ten Louis and she's yours', I should have refused and wept like a child who sees the castle which he had glimpsed during the night vanish as he wakes.
However, I wanted to meet her; it was one way, indeed the only way, of knowing how I stood with her.
So I told my friend that I insisted that she should give her permission for him to introduce me, and I loitered in the corridors, reflecting that any moment now she would see me and that I should not know what sort of expression to assume when she looked at me.
I tried to string together in advance the words I would speak to her.
What sublime nonsense love is!
A moment later, my friend came down again.
'She's expecting us, ' he said.
'Is she along?' I asked.
'She's with another woman.'
'There aren't any men?'
My friend made for the theater exit.
'Hold on, it's not that way, ' I said to him.
'We're going to buy some sweets. She asked for some.'
We went into a confectioner's in the galleries of the Passage de l'Opera.
I would have gladly bought the whole shop, and was casting round for what could be made into a selection, when my friend said:
'A pound of sugared raisins.'
'Are you sure she likes them?'
'She never eats any other kind of sweets, it's a well-known fact.'
When we were outside, he went on: 'Now then. Have you any idea what sort of woman I am about to introduce you to? Don't imagine you'll be meeting a duchess, she's just a kept woman ?none more kept, my dear fellow. Don't be shy, just say whatever comes into your head.'
'Er, of course, ' I stammered, and followed him, telling myself that I was about to be cured of my passion.
When I stepped into her box, Marguerite was laughing uproariously.
I would have preferred her to be sad.
My friend introduced me. Marguerite inclined her head slightly and said:
'Where are my sweets?'
'Here you are.'
As she took them, she looked straight at me. I lowered my eyes and blushed.
She leaned across, whispered something into her companion's ear, and both of them burst out laughing.
It was only too obvious that I was the cause of their mirth: my embarrassment deepened as a result. At the time, I had as a mistress a little middle-class girl, very loving, very cloying, who made me laugh with her sentimentality and sad billets-doux. I realized how much I must have hurt her by the hurt I now felt and, for the space of five minutes, I loved her as never woman was loved.
Marguerite ate her raisins without paying any further attention to me.
Having introduced me, my friend had no intention of leaving me in this ridiculous position.
'Marguerite, ' he said, 'you shouldn't be surprised if Monsieur Duval does not speak to you. You have such an effect on him that he cannot think of a thing to say.'
'I rather believe that this gentleman came here with you because you found it tiresome to come alone.'
'Were that true, ' I said in turn, 'I would not have asked Ernest to obtain your leave to introduce me.'
'Perhaps it was just a way of putting off the fatal moment.'
Anyone who has spent any time at all in the company of girls of Marguerite's sort is quite aware of what pleasure they take in making misplaced remarks and teasing men they meet for the first time. It is no doubt a way of levelling the scores for the humiliations which they are often forced to undergo at the hands of the men they see every day.
So, if you wish to give as good as you get, you need to have a certain familiarity with their world, and this I did not have. Moreover, the idea that I had formed of Marguerite made her jesting seem worse to me. Nothing about this woman left me indifferent. And so, getting to my feet, I said to her with a faltering in my voice which I found impossible to conceal completely:
'If that is what you think of me, Madame, all that remains for me is to ask you to forgive my indiscretion and to take my leave, assuring you that it will not happen again.'
Thereupon, I bowed and left.
I had scarcely closed the door when I heard a third burst of laughter. I would dearly have wished for someone to try to elbow me out of his way at that moment.
I returned to my seat in the stalls.
The three knocks were sounded for the curtain to rise.
Ernest rejoined me.
'What a way to behave!' he said to me as he took his seat. 'They think you're mad.'
'What did Marguerite say after I left?'
'She laughed, and declared she'd never seen anybody funnier than you. But you mustn't think you're beaten. Just don't do women like that the honour of taking them seriously. They have no idea what good taste and manners are; it's just the same with pet dogs that have perfume poured over them ?they can't stand the smell, and go off and roll in some gutter.'
'Anyway, what's it to me?' 'I said, trying to sound offhand. 'I shan't ever see that woman again, and even if I liked her before I got to know her, everything is very different now that I have met her.'
'Bah! I wouldn't be at all surprised one of these days to see you sitting in the back of her box and hear people saying how you're ruining yourself on her account. Still, you may be right, she has no manners, but she'd make an attractive mistress all the same.'
Fortunately, the curtain went up and my friend said no more. It would be quite impossible for me to tell you what play was performed. All I remember was that, from time to time, I would glance up at the box I had left so abruptly, and that the shapes of new callers kept appearing in quick succession.
However, I was far from having put Marguerite out of my mind. Another thought now took possession of me. I felt that I had both her insulting behaviour and my discomfiture to expunge; I told myself that, even if I had to spend everything I had, I would have that woman and would take by right the place which I had vacated so quickly.
Some time before the final curtain, Marguerite and her companion left their box.
Despite myself, I rose from my seat.
'You're not leaving?' said Ernest.
Just then, he noticed that the box was empty.
'Go on, then, ' he said, 'and good luck, or rather, better luck!'
On the stairs, I heard the rustle of dresses and the sound of voices. I stepped to one side and, without being observed, saw the two women walk by me together with the two young men who were escorting them.
In the colonnade outside the theatre, a young servant came up to the two women.
'Go and tell the coachman to wait outside the Cafe Anglais, ' said Marguerite, 'we shall go as far as there on foot.'
A few minutes later, as I loitered on the boulevard, I saw Marguerite at the window of one of the restaurant's large rooms: leaning on the balcony, she was pulling the petals one by one off the camellias in her bouquet.
One of the two men was leaning over her shoulder and was whispering to her.
I found a seat in the Maison d'Or, in one of the private rooms on the first floor, and did not take my eyes off the window in question.
At one in the morning, Marguerite got into her carriage with her three friends.
I took a cab and followed.
The carriage stopped outside 9 rue d'Antin.
Marguerite got out and went up to her apartment alone.
No doubt this happened by chance, but this chance made me very happy.
From that day on, I often encountered Marguerite at the theatre or on the Champs-Elysees. She was unchangingly gay and I was unfailingly quickened by the same emotions.
But then a fortnight passed without my seeing her anywhere. I ran into Gaston and asked him about her.
'The poor girl is very ill, ' he replied.
'What's the matter with her?'
'The matter with her is that she's got consumption and, because she lives the sort of life which is not calculated to make her better, she's in bed and dying.'
The heart is a strange thing; I was almost glad she was ill.
Every day, I called to have the latest news of the patient, though without signing the book or leaving my card. It was in this way that I learned of her convalescence and her departure for Bagneres.
Then time went by, and the impression she had made on me, if not the memory, seemed to fade gradually from my mind. I travelled; new intimacies, old habits and work took the place of thoughts of her, and whenever I did think back to that first encounter, I preferred to see the whole thing as one of those passions which one experiences in youth, and laughs at in no time at all.
Besides, there would have been no merit in vanquishing her memory, for I had lost sight of Marguerite since the time of her departure and, as I have explained to you, when she passed close to me in the passageway of the Theatre des Varietes, I did not recognize her.
She was wearing a veil, it is true; but two years earlier, however many veils she had been wearing, I would not have needed to see her to recognize her: I would have known her instinctively.
This did not prevent my heart form racing when I realized that it was her. The two
years spent without seeing her, together with the effects which this separation seemed to
have brought about were sent up in the same smoke by a single touch of her dress.