La Dame aux camélias (Camille)

Chapter 9

Chinese

'GOOD evening, my dear Gaston, ' Marguerite said to my companion, ' I'm so glad to see you. Why didn't you come to my box at the Varietes?'

'I was afraid of being indiscreet.'

'Friends, ' and Marguerite stressed the word, as though she wish to let it be known to all who were present that, despite the familiar way in which she greeted him, Gaston was not and had never been anything other than a friend, 'friends can never be indiscreet.'

'In that case, allow me to present Monsieur Armand Duval!'

'I've already given Prudence leave to do so.'

'I should perhaps say, madame, ' I said, bowing and managing to make more or less intelligible sounds, 'I have already had the honour of being introduced to you.'

Marguerite's delightful eyes seemed to be searching among her memories, but she did not remember, or appeared not to remember.

'Madame, ' I went on, 'I am grateful that you have forgotten that first meeting, for I behaved quite ridiculously and must surely have seemed very tiresome to you. It was two years ago, at the Opera-Comique; I was with Ernest de.'

'Ah! Now I remember!' Marguerite went on with a smile. 'It wasn't that you were ridiculous, but I who was a tease. As I still am rather, though less so nowadays. Have you forgiven me?'

And she held out her hand which I kissed.

'It's true, ' she continued. 'The fact is that I have this awful habit of wanting to embarrass people I see for the first time. It's very silly. My doctor says it's because I am highlystrung and always unwell: you must take my doctor's word for it.'

'But you look extremely well.'

'Oh! I've been very ill.'

'I know.'

'Who told you?'

'Everyone knew. I often used to come to find out how you were, and I was very happy to learn of your convalescence.'

'No one ever brought me your card.'

'I never left one.'

'Are you the young man who called every day to ask after me all the time I was ill, and would never leave his name?'

'I am.'

'Then you are more than kind, you are generous. You, Count, would never have done that, ' she added, turning to Monsieur de N but not before giving me one of those looks with which women let you know what they think of a man.

'I have known you for only two months, ' replied the Count.

'And this gentleman has known me for only five minutes. You always give the silliest answers.'

Women are pitiless with people they dislike.

The Count reddened and bit his lip.

I felt sorry for him, for he seemed just as much in love as I was, and Marguerite's callous frankness must have made him very wretched, especially in the presence of two strangers.

'You were playing something when we arrived, ' I then said, to change the subject.

'Won't you give me the pleasure of treating me like an old friend, and continue?'

'Oh!' she said, settling on to the sofa and gesturing to us to sit down beside her, 'Gaston knows exactly what my playing is like. It's all very well when I'm alone with the Count, but I shouldn't wish to put you through such torture.'

'So you do favour me in this respect?' replied Monsieur de N, with a smile intended to be subtle and ironic.

'You are quite wrong to reproach me for doing so. It's the only time I ever favour you in anything.'

It was clear that the poor fellow could not say anything right. He gave the young woman a truly beseeching look.

'Tell me, Prudence, ' she continued, 'did you do what I asked?'

'Yes.'

'Good, you shall tell me all about it later. We have things to talk about, so you mustn't go until I've spoken to you.'

'I think we are intruding, ' I said at this point, 'and now that we ?or rather I ?have managed a second introduction to expunge the memory of the first, Gaston and I will withdraw.'

'I won't hear of it; what I said wasn't intended for you. On the contrary, I'd like you to stay.'

The Count took out an extremely handsome watch which he consulted:

'Time I was going to the club, ' he said.

Marguerite did not reply to this.

The Count then moved away from the mantelpiece and, coming up to her:

'Good-bye, madame.'

Marguerite rose to her feet.

'Good-bye, my dear Count, must you go so soon?'

'Yes. I fear I bore you.'

'You do not bore me today more than any other day. When shall we see you again?'

'Whenever you permit.' 'Good-bye, then!'

It was cruel of her, you will agree.

Fortunately, the Count had been brought up very correctly and had an excellent character. He simply kissed the hand which Marguerite rather nonchalantly held out to him and, after taking his leave of us, went out.

As he was stepping through the doorway, he shot a glance at Prudence.

She shrugged her shoulders in a way which said:

'Sorry, but I did all I could.'

'Nanine!' called Marguerite, ' show she Count a light!'

We heard the door open and close.

'At last!' exclaimed Marguerite as she reappeared, 'he's gone; that young man gets terribly on my nerves.'

'My dear girl, 'said Prudence, 'you really are too unkind to him, he's so good to you, so thoughtful. On your mantelpiece, there's yet another watch that he's given you, and it will have set him back at least a thousand ecus, I'll be bound.'

And Madame Duvernoy, who had been moving towards the mantelpiece, was now playing with the bauble as she spoke, and casting covetous
looks at it.

'My dear, ' said Marguerite, sitting down at her piano, 'when I weigh in one hand what he gives me and, in the other, the things he says to me, I conclude that I let him have his visits very cheaply.'

'The poor boy is in love with you.'

'If I had to listen to everybody who is in love with me, I wouldn't have the time to eat my dinner.'

And she ran her fingers over the piano, after which she turned and said to us:

'Would you like anything? I'd love a little punch.'

'And I could eat a nice piece of chicken, ' said Prudence. 'Shall we have supper?'

'That's it, let's go out for supper, ' said Gaston.

'No, we'll have supper here.'

She rang. Nanine appeared.

'Send out for supper.'

'What shall I order?'

'Anything you like, but be quick, as quick as you can.'

Nanine went out.

'How lovely!' said Marguerite, skipping like a child, 'we are going to have supper. How boring that idiotic Count is!'

The more I saw of this woman, the more enchanted I was. She was entrancingly beautiful. Even her thinness became her.

I was lost in contemplation.

I would be hard put to explain what was going on inside me. I was full of indulgence for the life she led, full of admiration for her beauty. Proof of her disinterestedness was provided by the fact that she could turn down a fashionable and wealthy young man who was only too ready to ruin himself for her, and this, in my eyes, acquitted her of all past faults.

There was in this woman something approaching candour.

She was visibly still in the virgin stage of vice. Her confident bearing, her supple waist, her pink, flared nostrils, her large eyes faintly ringed with blue, all pointed to one of those passionate natures which give out a bouquet of sensuality, just as flasks from the Orient, however tightly sealed they might be, allow the fragrance of the fluids they contain to escape.

In short, either because it was her nature or else an effect of her state of health, her eyes flickered intermittently with flashes of desires which, if spoken, would have been a heaven- sent relevation to any man she loved. But those who had loved Marguerite were beyond counting, and those whom she had loved had not yet begun to be counted.

In other words, one could detect in this girl a virgin who had been turned into a courtesan by the merest accident of chance, and a courtesan whom the merest accident of chance could have turned into the most loving, the most pure of virgins. Marguerite still had something of a proud spirit and an urge to imdependence ?two sentiments which, when violated, are quite capable of achieving the same results as maidenly modesty. I said nothing. It was as though my soul had flowed completely into my heart, and my heart into my eyes.

'So, ' she went on suddenly, 'it was you who came for news of me when I was ill?'

'Yes.'

'You know, that is really quite sublime! And what can I do to thank you?'

'Allow me to come and call on you from time to time.'

'Come as often as you like, between five and six, and from eleven to midnight. I say, Gaston, do play the Invitation to the Waltz!'

'Why?'

'Firstly because I should like it, and secondly because I can never manage to play it when I'm by myself.'

'What do you find difficult with it?'

'The third part, the passage with the sharps.'

Gaston got to his feet, sat down at the piano and began to play Weber's splendid melody, the music of which lay open of the stand.

Marguerite, with on hand resting on the piano, looked at the score, her eyes following each note which she accompanied in a soft singing voice and, when Gaston reached the passage which she had mentioned, she hummed it and played it with her fingers on the back of the piano:

'Re, mi, re, doh, re, fa, mi, re...that's the part I can't get. Again.'

Gaston played it again, after which Marguerite said to him:

'Now let me try.'

She took his place and played in turn; but still her stubborn fingers tripped over one or other of the notes which we have just mentioned.

'It's inconceivable, ' she said with a quite childlike ring in her voice, 'that I can't manage to play this passage! You won't believe it, but sometimes I sit up working on it until two in the morning! And when I think that fool of a Count can play it without music, and admirably well at that, then I do believe that's why I get so cross with him.'

And she began again, and still with the same result.

'The hell with Weber, music and pianos!' she said, flinging the score to the other end of the room. 'Would anybody believe that I simply can't play eight sharps in a row?'

And she crossed her arms, glaring at us and stamping her foot.

The blood rushed to her cheeks and a small cough parted her lips.

'Come now, ' said Prudence, who had removed her hat and was smoothing her hair in a mirror, 'you'll only get angry an make yourself ill. Let's have supper. It's much the best thing: I'm absolutely starving.'

Marguerite rang again, then she turned back to the piano and began quietly crooning a squalid song ?without making any mistakes in the accompaniment.

Gaston knew the song, and they truned it into a sort of duet.

'I really wish you wouldn't sing such vulgar rubbish, ' I said to Marguerite casually, making it sound like a request.

'Oh, how innocent you are!' she said, smiling and holding out her hand to me.

'It's not for my sake but yours.'

Marguerite made a gesture which meant: 'Oh! it's a long time since I had anything to do with innocence.'

At this juncture, Nanine appeared.

'Is supper ready?' asked Marguerite.

'Yes, madame, in just a moment.'

'By the by, ' Prudence said to me, 'you haven't seen round the apartment. Come, I'll show you.'

As you know, the drawing-room was a marvel.

Marguerite came with us for a few steps, then she called Gaston and went with him into the dining-room to see if supper was ready.

'Hullo!' cried Prudence loudly, looking at the contents of a shelf from which she picked up a Dresden figurine, 'I didn't know you had this little chap!'

'Which one?'

'The shepherd boy holding a cage with a bird in it.'

'You can have it if you like it.'

'Oh! but I couldn't deprive you of him.'

'I wanted to give it to my maid, I think it's hideous. But since you like it, take it.'

Prudence saw only the gift and not the manner in which it was given. She put her shepherd boy to one side, and led me into the dressing-room where she showed me two miniatures which made a pair and said:

'That's Count de G who was madly in love with Marguerite. He's the one who made her name. Do you know him?'

'No. And who's this?' I asked, pointing to the other miniature.

'That's the young Vicomte de L. He had to go away.'

'Why?'

'Because he was just about ruined. Now there was somebody who really loved Marguerite!'

'And I imagine she loved him very much?'

'She's such a funny girl, you never know where you are with her. The evening of the day he went away, she went to the theatre as usual, and yet she had cried when he said goodbye.'

Just then Nanine appeared, and announced that supper was served.

When we went into the dining- room, Marguerite was leaning against one wall and Gaston, who was holding both her hands, was whispering to her.

'You're mad, ' Marguerite was saying to him, 'you know perfectly well that I don't want anything to do with you. You can't wait two years after getting to know a woman like me before asking to be her lover. Women like me give ourselves at once or never. Come, gentlemen, let's eat!'

And, slipping out of Gaston's grasp, Marguerite sat him on her right, me on her left, and then said to Nanine:

'Before you sit down, go to the kitchen and tell them they're not to answer the door if anyone rings.'

This order was given at one in the morning.

We laughed, we drank, we ate a great deal at that supperparty. Within minutes, the merriment had sunk to the lowest level, and witticisms of the kind which certain smart circles find so amusing and never fail to defile the lips of those who utter them, erupted periodically to be greeted with loud acclamations by Nanine, Prudence and Marguerite. Gaston was enjoying himself unreservedly: he was a young man whose heart was in the right place, but his mind had been a little warped by the kind of people he had mixed with in his early days. At one point, I had opted to steel myself, to make my heart and my thoughts immune to the spectacle before my eyes, and to contribute my share to the jollity which seemed to be a dish on the menu. But, little by little, I cut myself off from the uproar, my glass had stayed full and I had grown almost sad as I watched this beautiful creature of twenty drink, talk like a stevedore, and laugh all the louder as what was said became more shocking.

But the merriment, this way of talking and drinking which seemed to me to be in the other guests the effects of dissoluteness, habit and duress, appeared with Marguerite to be a need to forget, a restlessness, a nervous reaction. With each glass of champagne, her cheeks took on a feverish flush, and a cough, which had been nothing at the start of supper, eventually became sufficiently troublesome to force her head against the back of her chair and make her hold her chest with both hands each time the coughing seized her.

I felt the pain which these daily excesses must have inflicted upon so frail a constitution.

At length happened a thing which I had foreseen and dreaded. Towards the end of supper, Marguerite was taken with a fit of coughing much stronger than any she had had while I had been there. It was as though her chest was being torn to pieces from the inside. The poor girl turned purple, closed her eyes with the pain, and put her lips to a serviette which turned red with a splash of blood. Then she got up and ran into her dressing-room.

'What's up with Marguerite?' asked Gaston.

'What's up with her is that she's been laughing too much and is spitting blood, ' said Prudence. 'Oh, it won't be anything, it happens every day. She'll come back. Let's just leave her alone. She prefers it that way.'

For my part, I could bear it no longer and, to the great astonishment of Prudence and Nanine who called me back, I went in to join Marguerite.

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