La Dame aux camélias (Camille)

Chapter 15

Chinese

JOSEPH and I had been getting everything ready for my departure for about an hour, when there was a violent ringing at my door.

'Should I answer it?' said Joseph.

'Yes, ' I told him, wondering who could be calling so late, and not daring to hope it was Marguerite.

'Sir, ' said Joseph when he returned, 'there are two ladies?

'It's us, Armand, ' cried a voice which I recognized as belonging to Prudence.

I emerged from my bedroom.

Prudence was standing and gazing about her at the few curios dotted around my drawing-room; Marguerite was sitting on the sofa, occupied by her thoughts.

When I entered, I went to her, knelt before her, took both her hands and, in a voice touched with emotion, I said:

'Forgive me.'

She kissed me on the brow and said:

'That's the third time I've forgiven you.'

'I was going to go away tomorrow.'

'How can my visit change your mind? I haven't come here to stop you leaving Paris. I came because I haven't had time all day to reply to your letter, and I didn't want to leave you with the impression that I was cross with you. Even so, Prudence didn't want me to come: she said I might be in your way.'

'You! In my way, Marguerite! But how?'

'Why, you could have had a woman here, ' answered Prudence, 'and it wouldn't have been very funny for her to see another two turning up.'

While Prudence was making this remark, Marguerite watched me closely.

'My dear Prudence, ' I replied, 'you're talking nonsense.'

'You've got a very nice apartment, ' answered Prudence. 'Mind if I take a look at the bedroom?'

'Not at all.'

Prudence went off into my bedroom, not so much to see inside as to cover up her unfortunate remark and to leave Marguerite and me alone together.

'Why did you bring Prudence with you?' I said.

'Because she was with me at the theatre, and because I wanted to have someone to see me home when I left here.'

'Couldn't I have done it?'

'Yes. But apart from the fact that I didn't want to disturb you, I was quite certain that when you got to my door you would ask if you could come up and, since I couldn't let you, I didn't want you to go away feeling you had any right to blame me for refusing you anything.'

'And why couldn't you let me come up?'

'Because I'm being watched very closely, and because the least hint of suspicion could do me a great deal of harm.'

'Is that the only reason?'

'If there was another, I would tell you what it was; we've got past the stage of having secrets from each other.'

'Listen, Marguerite, I'm not going to make any bones about what I want to say to you. Tell me, do you love me a little?'

'A great deal.'

'Then why did you deceive me?'

'My dear, if I were the Duchess of This or That, if I had two hundred thousand livers a year, if I were your mistress and had another lover besides you, then you'd have every right to ask why I deceive you. But I am Mademoiselle Marguerite Gautier, I have debts of forty thousand and not a penny behind me, and I spend a hundred thousand francs a year: your question is out of order and my answer irrelevant.'

'You're quite right, ' I said, letting my head fall on to Marguerite's knees, 'but I do love you, to distraction.'

'Well, my dear, you should have loved me a little less or understood me a little better. Your letter hurt me very deeply. If I'd been free to choose, then in the first place I would never have seen the Count the day before yesterday, or, if I had, I would have come to beg you for the forgiveness which you asked of me a few moments ago and, from that moment on, I would have had no other lover but you. There was a moment when I thought I could indulge myself and be really happy for those six months. You would have none of it; you just had to know how I was going to manage it ?good heavens! it was easy enough to guess. The sacrifice I was going to have to make if it was to be possible, was much greater than you think. I could have told you: "I need twenty thousand francs." You were in love with me, you would have raised it somehow, though there was a risk that one day you'd be sorry you'd done so and blame me. I chose to owe you nothing; you didn't understand my delicacy, for delicacy it is. Girls of my sort, at least those of us who still have some feelings left, take words and things further and deeper than other women. I repeat: coming from Marguerite Gautier, the means with she found of repaying her debts without asking you for the money it took, was an act of great delicacy of which you should now take advantage without another word. If you met me today for the first time, you'd be only too delighted with the promises I'd make you, and you wouldn't ask questions about what I did the day before yesterday. Sometimes, we have no choice but to buy gratifications for the soul at some cost to the body, and it hurts all the more when those gratifications subsequently elude us.'

I heard and saw Marguerite with admiration. When I reflected that this marvellous creature, whose feet I once had longed to kiss, should consent to give me a place in her thoughts and a role in her life, and when I thought that I was still not content with what she was giving me, I asked myself whether man's desire has any limits at all if, though satisfied as promptly as mine had been, it can still aspire to something more.

'It's true, ' she went on, 'we creatures of chance have weird desires and unimaginable passions. Sometimes we give ourselves for one thing, sometimes for another. There are men who could ruin themselves and get nowhere with us; there are others who can have us for a bunch of flowers. Our hearts are capricious: it's their only diversion and their only excuse. I gave myself to you more quickly than I ever did to another man, I swear. Why? Because when you saw me coughing blood, you took me by the hand, because you wept, because you are the only human being who ever felt sorry for me. I'm now going to tell you something silly. Once I had a little dog who used to look at me with sad eyes when I coughed: he was the only living creature I have ever loved.

'When he died, I cried more than after my mother's death. Mind you, she did spend twelve years of her life beating me. Well, from the start, I loved you as much as my dog. If men only knew what can be had with just one tear, they would be better loved and we should ruin fewer of them.

'Your letter gave you away: it showed me that you didn't understand the workings of the heart, and it injured you more in the love. I had for you than anything else you could have done. It was jealousy, of course, but a sarcastic, haughty kind of jealousy. I was feeling miserable when I got the letter. I was counting on seeing you at midday, on having lunch with you, hoping the sight of you would chase away a thought I kept having which, before I knew you, never bothered me in the least.

'Then again, 'continued Marguerite, 'you were the only person with whom I'd sensed from the first I could think and speak freely. People who congregate around girls like me can gain a great deal by paying close attention to the slightest words we say, and by drawing conclusions from our most insignificant actions. Naturally, we have no friends, we have egotistical lovers who spend their fortunes not on us, as they claim, but on their vanity.

'For men like these, we have to be cheerful when they are happy, hale and hearty when they decide they want supper, and as cynical as they are. We are not allowed to have feelings, for fear of being jeered at and losing our credibility.

'Our lives are no longer our own. We aren't human beings, but things. We rank first in their pride, and last in their good opinion. We have women friends, but they are friends like Prudence ? yesterday's kept women who still have expensive tastes which their age prevents them from indulging. So they become our friends, or rather associates. Their friendship may verge on the servile, but it is never disinterested. They'll never give you a piece of advice unless there's money in it. They don't care if we've got ten lovers extra as long as they get a few dresses or a bracelet out of them and can drive about every now and then in our carriages and sit in our boxes at the theatre. They end up with the flowers we were given the night before, and they borrow our Indian shawls. They never do us a good turn, however trifling, without making sure they get paid twice what their trouble was worth. You saw as much yourself the evening Prudence brought me the six thousand francs which I'd asked her to go and beg from the Duke; she borrowed five hundred francs which she'll never give back, or else she'll pay it off in hats that will never get taken out of their boxes.

'So we can have, or rather I had, only one hope of happiness: and this was, sad as I sometimes am and ill as I am always, to find a man of sufficiently rare qualities who would never ask me to account for my actions, and be the lover of my wilder fancies more than the lover of my body. I found this man in the Duke, but the Duke is old and old age neither shields nor consoles. I'd thought I could settle for the life he made for me. But it was no use. I was dying of boredom, and I felt that if I was going to be destroyed, then I might as well jump into the flames as choke on the fumes.

'Then I met you. You were young, passionate, happy, and I tried to turn you into the man I had cried out for in my crowded but empty life. What I loved in you was not the man you were but the man you could be. You refuse to accept the part; you reject it as unworthy of you; you are a commonplace lover, just do what the others do: pay me and let's not talk about it any more.'

Marguerite, tired by this long confession, settled back into the sofa and, to check a mild fit of coughing, put her handkerchief to her lips and even wiped her eyes.

'Forgive me, forgive me, ' I murmured, 'I knew all this, but I wanted to hear you say it, my darling Marguerite. Let's forget the rest. Let's just remember one thing: we belong to one another, we are young and we are in love.

'Marguerite, do with me what you will. I am your slave, your dog. But, in the name of God, tear up the letter I wrote you and don't let me go away tomorrow. It would kill me.'

Marguerite withdrew the letter from the bodice of her dress and, as she handed it back to me, said with a smile of infinite sweetness:

'Here, I was bringing it back to you.'

I tore up the letter and, with tears in my eyes, kissed the hand which held it.

At this juncture, Prudence reappeared.

'Oh, Prudence, can you guess what he wants me to do?' said Marguerite.

'To forgive him.'

'That's right.'

'And have you?'

'I can't do otherwise. But there's something else he wants.'

'What's that?'

'He wants to come and have supper with us.'

'And are you going to say yes?'

'What do you think?'

'I think you're a couple of children without an ounce of common sense between you. But I also think that I'm ravenous, and the sooner you do say yes, the sooner we'll have supper.'

'Come on, then, ' said Marguerite, 'we can all fit into my carriage. By the way, ' she added, turning to me, 'Nanine will have gone to bed, so you'll have to open the door. Take my key, and try not to lose it again.'

I kissed Marguerite until she had no breath left.

Thereupon, Joseph came in.

'Sir, ' he said with the air of a man terribly pleased with himself, 'the trunks are packed.'

'All of them?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Well, unpack them. I'm not leaving.'

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