La Dame aux camélias (Camille)

Chapter 13

Chinese

'YOU got here almost as quickly as we did, ' said Prudence.

'Yes, ' I replied mechanically. 'Where's Marguerite?'

'In her apartment.'

'By herself?'

'With Monsieur de G.'

I strode up and down in her drawing-room.

'Whatever's the matter with you?'

'Do you imagine I think it's funny waiting around like this for Monsieur de G to come out of Marguerite's?'

'You're being unreasonable too. You must understand that Marguerite can't show the Count the door. Monsieur de G has been with her a long time now; he's always given her a lot of money. He still does. Marguerite spends more than a hundred thousand francs a year; she has huge debts. The Duke sends her whatever she asks him for, but she doesn't always dare ask for everything she needs. She can't afford to fall out with the Count who gives her around ten thousand francs a year at least. Marguerite really loves you, my dear, but your affair with her mustn't get serious both for her sake and yours. Your allowance of seven or eight thousand francs wouldn't be anything like enough to pay for her extravagance; it won't even run to the upkeep of her carriage. Just take Marguerite for what she is ?a good- hearted, lively, pretty girl. Be her lover for a month, two months. Give her flowers, buy her sweets, pay for boxes at the theatre. But don't go getting any other ideas, and don't go in for silly jealous scenes. You know what sort of girl you're dealing with: Marguerite's no saint. She likes you, you love her, leave it at that. I think you're foolish to get so touchy! You have the sweetest mistress in the whole of Paris! She receives you in a magnificent apartment, she's covered in diamonds, she needn't cost you a penny unless you decide otherwise, and you're still not satisfied. Hang it all, you expect too much!'

'You're quite right, but I can't help it. The thought that this man is her lover is agony.'

'To begin with, ' Prudence went on, 'is he still her lover? He's just a man that she needs, that's all.

For two days now, she's closed her door to him. He came this morning. She had no alternative: she had to accept the tickets for the box and say he could escort her. He brought her home, he came up for a moment, but won't stay, or otherwise you wouldn't be waiting here. All very natural, as I see it. Anyhow, you don't mind the Duke?'

'No, but he's an old man, and I'm sure Marguerite isn't his mistress. In any case, a man can often put up with one affair, but not two. Even so, the ease with which he tolerates such an arrangement can look suspiciously calculating. It brings anyone who submits to it, even if he does so out of love, very close to people just one step beneath who make a business out of submitting and a profit out of their business.'

'Ah, dear man! How behind the times you are! How many times have I seen the noblest, the most fashionable, the wealthiest men do what I now advise, and they have done it without fuss or shame or remorse! It happens every day of the week. How do you imagine all the kept women in Paris could carry on living the kind of lives they lead if they didn't have three of four lovers at the same time? There isn't a man around, however much money he had, who'd be rich enough to cover the expenses of a woman like Marguerite by himself. A private income of five hundred thousand francs is a colossal fortune in France; well, dear man, a private income of five hundred thousand francs wouldn't do it, and here's why. A man who has an income like that has an established household, horses, servants, carriages, hunting estates, friends; often he is married, he has children, he keeps a racing stable, he gambles, travels and a lot more besides. All these habits are so firmly rooted that he cannot drop them without appearing to be ruined and becoming the talk of the town. All in all, with five hundred thousand francs a year, he can't give a woman more than forty or fifty thousand in any twelve months, and even that's a great deal. So other lovers must make up the woman's annual expenditure. With Marguerite, it works out even more conveniently. By a miracle of heaven, she's got in with a rich old man worth ten millions whose wife and daughter are both dead and whose surviving relatives are nephews with a lot of money of their own. He gives her everything she wants without asking anything in exchange. But she can't ask him for more than seventy thousand francs a year, and I'm sure that if she did, then in spite of all his money and his affection for her, he would say no.

'All those young men in Paris with incomes of twenty or thirty thousand francs, that is with barely enough to get by in the circles they move in, are all quite aware, when they are the lovers of a woman like Marguerite, that their mistress couldn't even pay the rent or her servants on what they give her. They don't ever say that they know. They just appear not to see anything and, when they've had enough, they move on. If they are vain enough to want to provide for everything, they ruin themselves like idiots, and go off to get themselves killed in Africa, leaving a hundred thousand francs' worth of debts in Paris. And do you imagine that the woman is grateful? Not a bit of it. The very opposite. She'll say that she sacrificed her position for them, and that as long as she was with them she was losing money. Ah! all these dealings strike you as shameful, don't they? But it's all true. You are a nice boy and I couldn't be fonder of you. I've lived among women like these for twenty years, and I know what they're like and what sort of stuff they're made of. I wouldn't want to see you taking to heart a caprice which some pretty girl has for you.

'Anyway, on top of all that, ' Prudence continued, 'let's say Margurite loves you enough to give up the Count and even the Duke, if the Duke should find out about your affair and tell her to choose between you and him. If that happened, then the sacrifice which she'd be making for you would be enormous, no question about it. What sacrifice could you make to match hers? When you'd had enough of her and didn't want to have anything more to do with her, what would you do to compensate her for what you'd made her lose? Nothing. You would have cut her off from the world in which her fortune and her future lay, she would have given you her best years, and she would be forgotten. Then you'd either turn out to be the usual sort and throw her past in her face, telling her as you walked out that you were only behaving like all her other lovers, and you'd abandon her to certain poverty. Or else you would behave correctly and, believing you had an obligation to keep her by you, you'd land yourself inevitably in trouble, for an affair such as this, forgiveable in a young man, is inexcusable in older men. It becomes an obstacle to everything. It stands in the way of family and ambition which are a man's second and last loves. So believe me, my friend, take things for what they are worth and women as they are, and never give a kept woman any right to say that you owe her anything whatsoever.'

All this was sensibly argued, and it had a logic of which I would not have thought Prudence capable. I could think of nothing to say in reply, except that she was right; I gave her my hand and thanked her for her advice.

'Come, come, ' she said, 'now just forget all this gloomy theorizing and laugh. Life is delightful, my dear, it all depends on the prism you look at it through. Listen, ask your friend Gaston. Now there's someone who strikes me as understanding love as I understand it. What you've got to realize ?and you'll be a dull lad if you don't ?is that not far from here there's a beautiful girl who is waiting impatiently to see the back of the man she's with, who is thinking about you, who is keeping tonight for you and who I'm sure loves you. Now come and stand by the window with me, and we'll watch the Count leave: it won't be long now before he leaves the field clear for us.'

Prudence opened a window and we leaned on our elbows side by side on the balcony.

She watched the occasional passers-by. I stood musing.

Everything she had said reverberated inside my head, and I could not help admitting that she was right. But the true love I felt for Marguerite was not easily reconciled with her arguments. Consequently, I heaved intermittent sighs which made Prudence turn round and shrug her shoulders, like a doctor who has lost all hope of a patient.

'How clearly we see how brief life is, ' I said to myself, 'in the fleeting passage of our sensations! I have known Marguerite for only two days, she has been my mistress since just yesterday, and yet she has so overrun my thoughts, my heart and my life that a visit from this Count de G can make me wretched.'

Finally, the Count emerged, got into his carriage and drove off. Prudence closed her window.

At the same instant, Marguerite was already calling us.

'Come quickly, the table is being set, ' she said, 'and we'll have supper.'

When I entered her apartment, Marguerite ran towards me, threw her arms around my neck and kissed me with all her might.

'Are we still grumpy, then?' she said to me.

'No, that's all finished with, ' answered Prudence, 'I've been telling him a few home-truths, and he's promised to be good.'

'Wonderful!'

Despite myself, I cast a glance in the direction of the bed. It had not been disturbed: as for Marguerite, she had already changed into a white dressing-gown.

We sat down at table.

Charm, sweetness, high-spirits ?Marguerite had everything, and from time to time I had to admit that I had no right to ask anything else of her, that many a man would be happy to be in my shoes and that, like Virgil's shepherd, I had only to partake of the easy times which a god, or rather a goddess, held out to me.

I tried to put Prudence's theories into practice and be as gay as my two companions. But what came naturally to them was an effort for me, and my excited laughter, which they misunderstood, was very close to tears.

At length, supper ended and I remained alone with Marguerite. As was her habit, she went and sat on her rug in front of the fire and looked sadly into the flames in the hearth.

She was thinking! Of what? I cannot say. But I looked at her with love and almost with dread at the thought of what I was prepared to suffer for her sake.

'Do you know what I was thinking?'

'No.'

'About this scheme I've hit on.'

'And what is this scheme?'

'I can't tell you yet, but I can tell you what'll happen if it works. What would happen is that is a month from now I'd be free, I wouldn't have any more debts, and we'd go and spend the summer in the country together.'

'And can't you tell me how this is to be managed?'

'No. All it needs is for you to love me as I love you, and everything will come out right.'

'And did you hit on this scheme all by yourself?'

'Yes.'

'And you will see it through alone?'

'I'll have all the worry myself, ' Marguerite said with a smile which I shall never forget, 'but we will both share the profits.'

I recalled Manon Lescaut running through M. de B's money with Des Grieux.

I answered a little roughly as I got to my feet:

'You will be good enough, my dear Marguerite, to allow me to share the profits of only those enterprises which I myself contrive and execute.'

'And what does that mean?'

'It means that I strongly suspect that Count de G is your associate in this splendid scheme, of which I accept neither the costs nor the profits.'

'Don't be childish. I thought you loved me, but I was wrong. As you wish.'

And, so saying, she got up, opened her piano and once more began playing The Invitation to the Waltz as for as the famous passage in the major key which always got the better of her.

Was this done out of habit, or was it to remind me of the day we first met? All I know is that with this tune, the memories came flooding back and, drawing close to her, I took her head in my hands and kissed her.

'Do you forgive me?' I said.

'Can't you tell?' she answered. 'But note that this is just our second day, and already I've got something to forgive you for. You're not very good at keeping your promises of blind obedience.'

'I'm sorry, Marguerite, I love you too much, and I just have to know everything you think. What you suggested just now should make me jump for joy, but your mysteriousness about what happens before the plan is carried out makes my heart sink.'

'Oh come now, let's talk about this seriously for a moment, ' she went on, taking my two hands and looking at me with a bewitching smile which I was quite incapable of resisting. 'You love me, do you not, and you'd be happy to spend three or four months alone with me in the country? I too would be happy for us to be alone together, not just happy to go away with you but I need to for my health. I can't leave Paris for so long without putting my affairs in order, and the affairs of a woman like me are invariably very tangled. Well, I've found a way of bringing it all together ?my affairs and my love for you, yes, you, don't laugh, I'm mad enough to be in love with you! And then you get all hoity-toity and start coming out with fine words. Silly boy! Silly, silly boy! Just remember that I love you and don't worry your head about a thing. Well, is it agreed?'

'Everything you want is agreed, as you know very well.'

'In that case, a month from now we'll be in some village or other, strolling by the river and drinking milk. It must sound odd to you hearing me, Marguerite Gautier, talk like this. The fact is, my dear, that when life in Paris, which ostensibly makes me so happy, is not burning me out, it bores me. When that happens, I get sudden yearnings to lead a quieter life which would remind me of my childhood. Everybody, whatever has become of them since, has had a childhood. Oh! don't worry, I'm not about to tell you that I'm the daughter of a retired colonel and that I was raised at Saint- Denis. I'm just a poor girl from the country who couldn't even write her name six years ago. I expect you're relieved, aren't you! Why is it that you should be the first man I've ever approached to share the joy of the desire which has come upon me? I suppose it's because I sensed that you loved me for my sake and not for yours, whereas the others never loved me except for themselves.

'I've been to the country many times, but never the way I should have liked. I'm counting on you to provide the simple happiness I want. Don't be unkind: indulge me. Tell yourself this: "She's not likely to live to be old, and some day I should be sorry I didn't do the very first thing she ever asked me, for it was such a simple thing."'

What answer could I give to such words, especially with the memory of a first night of love behind me and with the prospect of a second to come?

An hour later, I was holding Marguerite in my arms, and if she had asked me to commit a crime for her, I would have obeyed.

I left her at six in the morning. Before I went, I said:

'Shall I see you this evening?'

She kissed me harder, but did not reply.

During the day, I received a letter containing these words:

'Darling boy, I'm not very well and the doctor has told me to rest, I shall go to bed early tonight and so shall not see you. But, as a reward, I shall expect you tomorrow at noon. I love you.'

My first thought was: 'She's deceiving me!'

An icy sweat broke out on my forehead, for I was already too much in love with her not to be aghast at the thought.

And yet I was going to have to expect it to happen almost daily with Marguerite; it had often happened with my other mistresses without it ever bothering me too much. How was it then that this woman had such power over my life?

Then, since I had the key to her apartment, I thought I might call and see her as usual. In this way, I should know the truth soon enough, and if I found a man there, I would offer to give him satisfaction.

To while away the time, I went to the Champs-Elysees. I stayed there for four hours. She did not make an appearance. In the evening, I looked in at all the theatres where she usually went. She was not in any of them.

At eleven o'clock, I made my way to the rue d'Antin.

There was no light in any of Marguerite's windows. Even so, I rang.

The porter asked me where I wanted to go.

'To Mademoiselle Gautier's, ' I said.

'She's not back.'

'I'll go up and wait.'

'There's nobody in.'

Of course, he had his orders which I could have circumvented since I had a key, but I was afraid of an embarrassing scene and went away.

But I did not go home. I could not leave the street and did not take my eyes off Marguerite's house for a moment. I felt that I still had something to learn, or at least that my suspicions were about to be confirmed.

About midnight, a brougham, which was all too familiar, pulled up near number 9.

Count de G got out and went into the house after dismissing his coach.

For a moment, I hoped that he was about to be told, as I had been, that Marguerite was not at home, and that I should see him come out again. But I was still waiting at four in the morning.

These last three weeks, I have suffered a great deal. But it has been nothing compared with what I suffered that night.

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