HOWEVER (Armand went on after a pause), though I realized full well that I was still in love, I felt stronger than I had before and, in my desire to be with Marguerite again, there was also a determination to make her see that I now had the upper hand.
Many are the paths the heart will tread, and many the excuses its finds, that it may reach what it desires!
I could not therefore remain in the corridors any longer, and went back to my seat in the pit, quickly glancing around the auditorium as I did so to see in which box she was sitting.
She was in the stage-box in the stalls, and quite alone. She looked much altered, as I have told you, and I could not detect on her lips her old unconcerned smile. She had been ill; she still was.
Although it was already April, she was still dressed for winter and wore velvet.
I looked at her so insistently that my eye caught hers.
She considered me for a moment or two, reached for her opera-glasses to get a better look, and clearly thought she recognized me, though without being able to say positively who I was. For when she lowered her opera- glasses, a smile ?that captivating greeting of women ? strayed across her lips in reply to the acknowledgement the seemed to expect from me. But I made no response, as a way of asserting an advantage over her and of appearing to have forgotten while she remembered.
Believing that she was mistaken, she turned her head away.
The curtain went up.
I have seen Marguerite many times in the theatre. I never once saw her pay the slightest attention to what was happening on stage.
For me too, the play was of very little interest, and I had eyes only for her while doing my utmost to ensure that she did not notice.
It was thus that I observed her exchanging looks with the person who occupied the box opposite hers; I raised my eyes to this other box, and in it recognized a woman with whom I was reasonably familiar.
She had once been a kept woman, had tried the stage, had not succeeded and, counting on her contacts among the fashionable women of Paris, had gone into business and opened a milliner's shop.
In her, I saw a way of contriving a meeting with Marguerite, and I took advantage of a moment when she was looking in my direction to wish her a pleasant evening with hands and eyes.
What I had foreseen happened: she summoned me to her box.
Prudence Duvernoy ?such was the apt name of the milliner ?was one of those ample women of forty with whom no great diplomatic subtleties are required to get them to say what you wish to know, especially when what you wish to know is as simple as what I had to ask.
Seizing a moment when she was inaugurating a new round of signals with Marguerite, I asked her:
'Who's that you're watching?'
'Do you know her?'
'Yes, I'm her milliner, and she's a neighbour of mine.'
'So you live in the rue d'Antin.'
'In number 7. The window of her dressing-room looks on to the window of mine.'
'They say she's a charming girl.'
'Don't you know her?'
'No, but I'd very much like to.'
'Do you want me to tell her to come across to our box?'
'No, I'd prefer you to introduce me to her.'
'At her place?'
'That's more difficult.'
'Because she's under the protection of an old Duke who is very jealous.'
' "Protection", how charming.'
'Yes, protection, ' Prudence went on. 'Poor old thing. He'd be hard put to it to be her lover.'
Prudence then related how Marguerite had become acquainted with the Duke at Bagneres.
'And that is why, ' I continued, 'she's here on her own?'
'But who'll drive her home?'
'So he'll come and fetch her?'
'Any minute now.'
'And who's taking you home?'
'But you're with a friend, I believe.'
'Allow us, then.'
'What's this friend of yours?'
'He's a charming fellow, very witty. He'll be delighted to meet you.'
'Very well, then, it's agreed, all four of us will leave after this play is finished, for I've seen the last one before.'
'Splendid. I'll go and tell my friend.'
'Off you go.'
I was on the point of leaving when Prudence said: 'Ah! there's the Duke just coming into Marguerite's box.'
And indeed, a man of seventy had just sat down behind the young woman and was giving her a bag of sweets which, with a smile, she began to eat at once, and then she pushed them across the front ledge of her box with a sign to Prudence which could be translated as:
'Do you want some?'
'No, ' was Prudence's reply.
Marguerite retrieved the bag and, turning round, began chatting to the Duke.
So exact an account of all these detailed happenings must seem very childish, but anything connected with that girl is so present in my recollection that I cannot help but remember it all now.
I went down to let Gaston know what I had just arranged for him and me.
He was game.
We left our seats in the stalls and made for Madame Duvernoy's box.
We had barely opened the door leading out of the orchestra stalls when we were forced to stop and make way for Marguerite and the Duke who were leaving.
I would have given ten years of my life to have been in that old man's shoes.
When he reached the boulevard, he handed her up into a phaeton, which he drove himself, and they disappeared, borne away at a trot by two superb horses.
We entered Prudence's box.
When the play was over, we went down and got an ordinary cab which took us to 7 rue
d'Antin. When we reached her door, Prudence invited us up to view her business premises,
which we had never seen before, and of which she seemed very proud. You can imagine how
I felt that I was imperceptibly drawing closer to Marguerite. It was not long before I had turned the conversation round to her.
'Is the old Duke with your neighbour?' I asked Prudence.
'No, no; she's most likely on her own.'
'But she'll be terribly bored, ' said Gaston.
'We usually spend our evenings together or, when she gets home, she calls down to me. She never goes to bed before two in the morning. She can't get to sleep before then.'
'Because she's got consumption, and she's almost always feverish.'
'Doesn't she have any lovers?' I asked.
'I never see anybody staying behind when I leave, but I don't say there's nobody comes after I've gone. When I'm there of an evening, I often come across a certain Count de N who thinks he can get somewhere with her by paying calls at eleven o'clock and sending her all the jewels she could possibly want; but she can't stand the sight of him. She's wrong, he's a very rich young man. I tell her from time to time, not that it does a bit of good: "My dear child, he's just the man for you!" She listens to me well enough ordinarily, but then she turns her back on me and answers that he is too stupid. He may be stupid, I grant you, but he'd set her up on a good footing, whereas that old Duke could die from one day to the next. Old men are selfish; his family are always on at him about his affection for Marguerite: that makes two reasons why he'll not leave her a penny. I'm forever going on at her about it, but she says that there'll still be time enough to say yes to the Count when the Duke's dead.
'It's not always much fun, ' Prudence continued, 'living the way she does. I can tell you it wouldn't do for me. I'd send the old relic packing. He's a dull old thing: he calls her his daughter, looks after her like a little child, and is forever hovering round her. I'm pretty sure that even at this time of night one of his servants is hanging about in the street to see who comes out and especially who goes in.'
'Oh, poor Marguerite!' said Gaston, sitting down at the piano and playing a waltz, 'I had no idea. Still, I have noticed that she hasn't seemed as jolly for some time now.'
'Hush!' said Prudence, pricking up her ears.
'She's calling me, I think.'
And indeed, a voice was calling Prudence.
'Come along, gentlemen, off with you, ' Madame Duvernoy told us.
'So that's what you mean by hospitality, ' Gaston said laughingly, 'we'll be off when it suits us.'
'Why should we go?'
'I'm going to Marguerite's.'
'We'll wait here.'
'I won't have it.'
'In that case, we'll come with you.'
'That's even more out of the question.'
'I know Marguerite, 'said Gaston, ' it's perfectly all right for me to drop in to pay my respects.'
'But Armand doesn't know her.'
'I shall introduce him.'
Once more we heard Marguerite's voice still calling Prudence.
Prudence ran into her dressing- room. I followed with Gaston. She opened the window.
We hid ourselves so that we could not be seen from outside.
'I've been calling you for ten minutes, 'said Marguerite from her window in a tone that verged on the peremptory.
'What do you want with me?'
'I want you to come at once.'
'Because Count de N is still here, and he's boring me to death.'
'I can't just now.'
'What's stopping you?'
'I've got two young men here who won't go away.'
'Tell them you've got to go out.'
'I have told them.'
'Well, they can stay there; when they see you've gone, they'll leave.'
'After turning the place upside down?'
'But what do they want?'
'They want to see you.'
'What are their names?'
'You know one of them, Monsieur Gaston R.'
'Ah, yes, I know him; and the other?'
'Monsieur Armand Duval. Don't you know him?'
'No; but bring them all the same. Anything would be better than the Count. I shall be waiting for you, so hurry.'
Marguerite shut her window, and Prudence shut hers.
Marguerite, who had for an instant recalled my face, did not remember my name. I would have been better pleased to be remembered in an unflattering light than forgotten altogether like this.
'I knew it, ' said Gaston, 'I knew she'd be delighted to see us.'
'Delighted isn't the word, ' answered Prudence, putting on her hat and shawl, 'she'll see you to make the Count go away. Try to be more agreeable than him, or otherwise ?I know Marguerite ?she'll take it out on me.'
We followed Prudence down the stairs.
I was shaking; I had a feeling that this visit would have a great influence on my life.
I was even more apprehensive than the evening I had been introduced in the box at the Opera-Comique.
When we arrived at the door of the apartment with which you are acquainted, my heart was beating so loud that I could not think.
A few chords from a piano reached our ears.
Prudence rang the bell.
The piano stopped.
A woman, who looked rather more like a lady's companion than a maid, opened the door to us.
We passed through the drawing- room, and from the drawing-room into the parlour, which was at that time exactly as you have seen it since.
A young man was leaning against the mantelpiece.
Marguerite, seated at the piano, was letting her fingers run over the keys, starting more pieces than she finished.
Everything about the scene exuded boredom which stemmed, on the man's side, from an embarrassing awareness of his own dullness and, on the woman's, from the visit of this lugubrious personage.
Hearing Prudence's voice, Marguerite rose to her feet and, coming up to us after first exchanging a look of gratitude with Madame Duvernoy, she said to us:
'Do come in, gentlemen, you are most welcome.'