La Dame aux camélias (Camille)

Chapter 12

Chinese

AT five in the morning, when daylight began to appear through the curtains, Marguerite said to me:

'Forgive me if I shoo you away now, but I must. The Duke comes every morning; when he arrives, he'll be told I'm asleep, and he may wait for me to wake.'

I took Marguerite's head in both my two hands, her loosened hair cascading on to her shoulders, and I gave her one last kiss, saying:

'When will I see you again?'

'Listen, ' she went on, 'take the little gold key on the mantelpiece there and unlock the door. Then bring me back the key and go. Sometime during the day, you'll receive a letter with my instructions, for you know that you must obey blindly.'

'Yes ?but what if I were already to ask you something?'

'What is it?'

'That you leave the key in my keeping.'

'I've never done for anyone what you're asking me to do now.'

'Well, do it for me, for I swear that I do not love you as the others loved you.'

'Very well, keep it. But I warn you that I could at any time see to it that your key served no useful purpose.'

'How?'

'There are bolts on this side of my door.'

'You wicked creature!'

'I'll have them removed.'

'So you do love me a little?'

'I don't know how it is, but it seems I do. And now, go: I'm almost asleep.'

We remained a few moments in each others' arms and then I left.

The streets were deserted, the great city was sleeping still, and a pleasant coolness ran through the neighbourhood which, a few hours later, would be overrun by the noise of men.

I felt as though the sleeping city belonged to me. I ransacked my memory for the names of men whose happiness, up to that moment, I had envied; and I could not recall one without finding that I was happier than he.

To be loved by a chaste young girl, to be the first to show her the strange mystery of love, is a great joy ?but it is the easiest thing in the world. To capture a heart unused to attack is like walking into an open, undefended city. Upbringing, the awareness of duty, and the family, are watchful sentries of course, but there are no sentries, however vigilant, that cannot be eluded by a girl of sixteen to whom nature, through the voice of the man she adores, whispers those first counsels of love which are all the more passionate because they seem so pure.

The more sincere a young girl's belief in goodness, the more easily she gives herself, if not to her lover, then at least to love. Because she is unsuspecting, she is powerless, and to be loved by her is a prize which any young man of twenty-five may have whenever he likes. And to see how true this is, simply consider how much supervision and how many ramparts surround young girls! Convents cannot have walls too high, nor mothers locks too strong, nor religion duties too unrelenting to deep all these charming birds safe in cages which no one even tries to disguise with flowers. And so, how keenly must they want that world which is kept hidden from them! How tempting must they believe it to be! How eagerly must they listen to the first voice which, through the bars of their cage, tells of its secrets! And how gratefully to they bless the first hand which lifts a corner of its mysterious veil!

But to be truly loved by a courtesan is a much more difficult victory to achieve. In such women, the body has consumed the soul, the senses have burnt out the heart, debauchery has buckled stout armour on to feeling. The words you say to them, they first heard long ago; the tactics you use, they have seen before; the very love they inspire in you, they have sold to others. They love because love is their trade, not because they are swept off their feet. They are better guarded by their calculations than a virgin by her mother and her convent. Which is why they have coined the word ' caprice' to describe those non- commercial affairs in which they indulge from time to time as a relief, an excuse or as a consolation. Such women are like money-lenders who fleece large numbers of people, and think they can make amends by lending twenty francs one day to some poor devil who is starving to death, without asking him to pay interest or requiring him to sign a receipt.

But when God allows a courtesan to fall in love, her love, which at first looks like a pardon for her sins, proves almost invariably to be a punishment on her. There is no absolution without penance. When such a creature, who has all the guilt of her past on her conscience, suddenly feels herself gripped by a deep, sincere, irresistible love such as she had never dreamed herself capable of experiencing; when she finally declares her love ?how complete the power of the man she loves! How strong he feels once he has the cruel right to say: 'What you do now for love is no more than you have done for money.'

When this happens, they are at a loss for ways of proving what they feel. A boy in a field who, so the fable goes, persisted in finding it amusing to shout 'Help!' to disturb some workmen, was eaten one fine day by a bear, without it occurring to those he had so often deceived that this time his shouts were real. And so it is with these wretched girls when they genuinely fall in love. They have lied so often that no one believes them any more and, beset by remorse, they are eaten by their love.

Which explains the great self- sacrifices, the austere self-seclusions of which a few such women have afforded examples.

But if a man who inspires such saving love is sufficiently generous of soul to accept it without thought for the past, if he commits himself totally to her, if he really loves as he is loved, then such a man drains in one draught all terrestrial emotions and, after a love like this, his heart is thereafter closed to any other.

It was not then, as I returned home that morning, that these thoughts came to me. They could not in any case have been much more at that point than a presentiment of what was to befall me and, in spite of my love for Marguerite, I did not anticipate any such outcome. But I think these thoughts today: now that it is all irrevocably ended, they emerge naturally from what has been.

But let us return to that first day of our affair. When I reached home, I was wildly exhilarated. Feeling that the barriers which my imagination had erected between Marguerite and me had disappeared, and believing that she was mine, that I had a small place in her thoughts, that I had the key to her apartment in my pocket and permission to use it, I felt pleased with life and pleased with myself, and I praised God who had let it all happen.

One day, a young man walks along a street, comes across a woman, looks at her, turns and looks again, then walks on. This woman, whom he does not know, has pleasures, sorrows, loves in which he has no part. He does not exist for her, and perhaps, if he spoke to her, she would laugh at him just as Marguerite had laughed at me. Weeks, months, years pass by and then, quite unexpectedly, when both have followed their destiny in their separate ways, the logic of chance brings them face to face. The woman becomes the man's mistress and loves him truly. How? Why? Their two lives are now as one: no sooner is their affection sealed than they feel as though it has always existed, and everything that has gone before is blotted from the memory of the two lovers. It really is the oddest thing, you must admit.

For my own part, I could not recall how I had ever lived before the previous evening. My whole being cried out for joy at the memory of the words we had exchanged during that first night. Either Marguerite was skilled at deceit, or she truly felt for me one of those sudden passions which can come with the first kiss but sometimes fade as quickly as they came.

The more I thought about it, the surer I was that Marguerite could have no reason to feign a love she did not feel and, furthermore, I told myself that women have two ways of loving which may derive the one from the other: they love either with their hearts or with their senses. A woman will often take a lover merely to do the bidding of her senses and, without expecting to, acquires knowledge of the mystery of ethereal love, and henceforth lives only through her heart; a young girl, seeking in marriage simply the union of two pure affections, will often acquire the sudden revelation of physical love, the emphatic culmination of the purest impressions of the soul.

I fell asleep in the middle of my thoughts. I was woken by a letter from Marguerite which contained these words:

'These are my orders: This evening at the Vaudeville. Come during the third interval.

M. G.'

I put her note away in a drawer, so that I would always have reality to hand should I ever have doubts, as happened from time to time.

As she did not say that I should go and see her during the day, I dared not call on her; but so great was my desire to meet up with her before that evening that I ventured on to the Champs-Elysees where, like the previous day, I saw her drive up and then down again.

At seven, I was at the Vaudeville.

I had never arrived at a theatre quite so early.

All the boxes filled one after the other. Just one remained unoccupied: the front box in the stalls.

At the start of the third act, I heard someone opening the door to this box, on which I had kept my eyes more or less permanently fixed, and Marguerite appeared.

She immediately came and stood in the front of her box, scanned the stalls, saw me and thanked me with a glance.

She was radiantly beautiful that evening.

Was I the reason why she had taken such care to look her best? Did she love me enough to think that the more beautiful I found her, the happier I would be? I still could not be sure; but if this was her intention, then she fully succeeded. For when she appeared, there was a ripple of turning heads and even the actor who was speaking at that moment looked in the direction of the woman whose entrance had disturbed the audience.

And I had the key to that woman's apartment, and in three or four hours she would be mine once more!

We decry men who ruin themselves for actresses and kept women; what surprises me is that they do not commit twenty times as many follies for them. You need to have lived that kind of life, as I have, to understand just how strongly all those little gratifications of vanity which a mistress provides each day can weld to a man's heart, for want of a better word, the love which he has for her.

Then Prudence took her seat in the box and a man, who I recognized as Count de G, sat down at the back.

When I saw him, my heart went cold.

No doubt Marguerite noticed what effect the presence of this man in her box was having on me, for she smiled at me once more and, turning her back on the Count, appeared to be concentrating hard on the play. When the third interval began, she turned round and spoke briefly; the Count left the box, and Marguerite signalled me to come and see her.

'Good evening, ' she said as I entered, and she held out her hand.

'Good evening, ' I replied, directing the greeting at both Marguerite and Prudence.

'Do sit down.'

'But this is someone's seat. Isn't Count de G coming back?'

'Yes. I sent him off to fetch me some sweets so that we could have a moment alone to talk. Madame Duvernoy knows everything.'

'Yes, my children, 'said she. 'But don't worry. I shan't tell.'

'What's wrong with you this evening?' said Marguerite, rising and coming into the dark back of the box where she kissed me on the forehead.

'I'm not feeling too well.'

'You should go to bed, ' she went on, with that ironic expression which went so well with her fine, quick- witted head.

'Whose?'

'Yours.'

'You know very well that I shan't sleep.'

'In that case, you shouldn't come here sulking just because you saw a man in my box.'

'That's not the reason.'

'Oh yes it is, I know all about such things and you're wrong. Let's not say any more about it. After the play, come to Prudence's and stay there until I call you. Understood?'

'Yes.'

Did I have any choice but to obey?

'Do you still love me?' she went on.

'How can you ask!'

'Have you thought about me?'

'All day long.'

'Do you know something? I'm seriously beginning to be afraid I could fall in love with you. You'd better ask Prudence.'

'Ah!' Prudence cried heartily, 'stop pestering me!'

'Now, you are to go back to your seat in the stalls. The Count will return at any minute and there's nothing to be gained if he finds you here.'

'Why not?'

'Because you don't much like seeing him.'

'It's not that. It's just that if you had told me you wanted to come to the Vaudeville this evening, I could have sent you tickets for a box every bit as well as he could.'

'Unfortunately, he brought them round without my asking him to, and offered to escort me. You know very well I couldn't refuse. The most I could do was to write and let you know where I was going, because then you could see me, and because I wanted to see you sooner rather than later. But if that's the thanks I get, let it be a lesson to me.'

'I was wrong. Do forgive me!'

'Very well. Go back to your seat like a good boy, and for heaven's sake no more jealous scenes!'

She kissed me again, and I left.

In the corridor, I met the Count on his way back.

I returned to my seat.

After all, the presence of Monsier de G in Marguerite's box was the most uncomplicated thing. He had been her lover, he brought her tickets for a box, he came to the play with her it was all very natural, and the moment I took a girl like Marguerite as my mistress, I had no alternative but to accept her ways.

All the same, such considerations did not make me any the less wretched for the rest of the evening, and I felt extremely miserable as I left, having seen Prudence, the Count and Marguerite stepping into the barouche which stood waiting for them at the door.

Even so, a quarter of an hour later I was at Prudence's. She had returned only a moment before.

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