La Dame aux camélias (Camille)

Chapter 16


I COULD have told you the start of the affair in a few lines (Armand said to me), but I wanted you to see for yourself the events and stages by which we reached the point where I agreed to everything Marguerite wanted, and Marguerite conceded that she could live only with me.

It was on the day following the evening when she had come seeking me out that I sent her Manon Lescaut.

From that moment on, since I could not alter my mistress's way of life, I altered mine. More than anything, I wanted to leave my mind with no time to dwell on the role I had just accepted, for, despite myself, I should have been very unhappy with it. And thus my life, normally so calm, suddenly took on an air of riot and chaos. You must not imagine that the love of a kept woman, however disinterested, costs nothing. Nothing costs more than the constant capricious requests for flowers, boxes at the theatre, supper parities, outings to the country which can never be denied a mistress.

As I have told you, I had no real money of my own. My father was, and still is, the District Collector of Taxes for C. He has a wide reputation for loyal service, thanks to which he was able to raise the money for the surety he had to find before taking up the post. The Collectorship brings in forty thousand francs a year and, during the ten years he has held it, he has paid off his bond and set about putting a dowry for my sister to one side. My father is the most honourable man you could hope to meet. When my mother died, she left an income of six thousand francs which he divided between my sister and myself the day he acquired the appointment for which he had canvassed; then, when I was twenty-one, he added to this small income an annual allowance of five thousand francs, and assured me that I could be very happy in Paris on eight thousand francs if, beside this income, I could establish myself in a position at the bar or in medicine. Accordingly, I came to Paris, read law, was called to the bar and, like any number of young men, put my diploma in my pocket and rather let myself drift along on the carefree life of Paris. My expenses were very modest. However, I regularly got through my year's income in eight months, and spent the four summer months at my father's place, which in all gave me twelve thousand a year and a reputation as a good son. And, moreover, I didn't owe anyone a penny.

That was how things stood with me when I met Marguerite.

You will appreciate that, in spite of my wishes, my level of expenditure rose. Marguerite's was a most capricious nature, and she was one of those women who never consider that the countless amusements of which their life is made can be a serious financial drain. As a result, since she wanted to spend as much time with me as possible, she would write me a note in the morning to say that she would have dinner with me, not in her apartment, but in some restaurant either in Paris or in the country. I would collect her, we would dine, go on to the theatre, and often have supper together, and I would spend four or five Louis on the evening. Which came to two thousand five hundred or three thousand francs a month. Which shortened my year to three and a half months, and put me in the position of either having to run up debts or to leave Marguerite.

Now I was prepared to agree to anything, except the latter possibility.

Forgive me for telling you all this in such detail, but, as you shall see, these circumstances were the cause of the events which follow. The story I tell is true and simple, and I have allowed the unvarnished facts to stand and the onward march of events to emerge unobstructed.

I realized therefore that, since nothing in the world could weigh heavily enough with me to make me forget my mistress, I should have to find a way of meeting the expense which she forced me to incur. Furthermore, love had run such riot in me that every moment I spent away from Marguerite seemed like a year, and I felt the need to pass those moments through the flame of some passion or other, and to live them so fast so fast that I would not notice that I was living them at all.

I set about borrowing five or six thousand francs against my small capital and began to play the tables, for since the gambling houses were shut down, people have been gambling everywhere. Time was, when you went to Frascati, you stood a chance of winning a fortune: you played against a bank and, if you lost, you had the consolation of telling yourself you might have won. Whereas nowadays, except in the gaming clubs where you still find they are pretty strict about paying up, you can be fairly sure that if you win a large sum you won't see a penny of if. You will readily understand the reasons why.

Gambling is only for young men who have expensive tastes and not enough money to keep up the kind of lives they lead. So they gamble and, in the natural way of things, this is the result: they may win, and then the losers are expected to foot the bill for these gentlemen's horses and mistresses, which is thoroughly disagreeable. Debts are contracted, and friendships begun around the gaming table end in quarrels from which honour and lives invariably emerge somewhat tattered. And if you are a gentleman, you may find you have been ruined by very gentlemanly young men whose only fault was that they did not have two hundred thousand francs a year.

There is no need for me to tell you about the ones who cheat. One day, you learn that they have had to go away and that ?too late ?judgement has been passed on them.

I accordingly threw myself into the fast-moving, bustling, volcanic life which once upon a time had frightened me when I thought of it, and which had now come to be in my eyes the inescapable corollary of my love for Marguerite. What else could I have done?

During the nights I did not spend in the rue d'Antin, I should not have slept if I had spent them alone in my apartment. Jealousy would have kept me awake and heated my thoughts and blood. On the other hand, gambling temporarily beguiled the fever which would otherwise have overrun my heart which was, thereby, diverted towards a passion fascinating enough to absorb me despite myself until the time came for me to go to my mistress. When that hour struck ?and this was how I became aware of how violent my love was ?then, whether I was winning or losing, I would abandon the table without compunction, feeling pity for those I left there who, unlike me, would not find happiness when they came to take their leave.

For most of them, gambling was a necessity; for me, it was a kind of antidote.

When I was cured of Marguerite, I would be cured of gambling.

And so, in the middle of it all, I was able to keep a fairly cool head. I lost only what I could afford, and won only what I could have afforded to lose.

Moreover, luck was on my side. I did not run up debts, and spent three times as much as before I started playing the tables. It was not easy to resist the allurements of a way of life which enabled me to cater for Marguerite's innumerable whims without feeling the pinch. For her part, she still loved me as much, and even more.

As I have told you I began at first by being allowed to stay only between midnight and six in the morning. Then I was allowed into her box at various theatres from time to time. Next, she came and dined with me occasionally. One morning, I did not leave until eight, and there was a day when I did not go until noon.

Pending her moral transformation, a physical transformation had come over Marguerite. I had undertaken to cure her, and the poor girl, guessing what I was about, did everything I told her as a way of showing her gratitude. Without too much trouble or persuasion, I managed to cut her off almost totally from her old habits. My doctor, whom I had arranged for her to meet, had told me that only rest and quiet could keep her in good health, and consequently, for the supper parties and late nights, I succeeded in substituting a healthy diet and regular sleep. Reluctantly at first, Marguerite took to her new life, the beneficial effects of which she could feel. And soon she began to spend odd evenings at home or, if the weather were fine, she would wrap up well in an Indian shawl, cover her face with a veil, and we would set off on foot, like a couple of children, to roam the evening away along the dusky avenues of the Champs-Elysees. She would return weary, take a light supper and retire to bed after playing a little music or reading a few pages, something which had never happened to her before. The coughing fits, which I had found heartrending whenever I heard her racked by them, had almost completely gone.

Within six weeks, there was no further mention of the Count who had been permanently sacrificed. There remained only the Duke to compel me to hide my affair with Marguerite, and even he had often been sent away in my presence on the pretext that Madame was asleep and had left orders that she was not to be disturbed.

As a direct result of the habit of seeing me ?or rather the need to see me ?which Marguerite had contracted, I abandoned gambling at the precise moment when an experienced gambler would also have given up. All in all, with what I had won, I found myself in possession of twelve thousand francs which seemed an inexhaustible capital to me.

The time of year had come round when I normally went off to join my father and my sister, and still I did not go. As a result, I received frequent letters from both of them asking me to come and stay with them.

To all their entreaties, I answered as best I could, repeating that I was well and that I was not short of money, two considerations which, I believed, would go some way to consoling my father for delaying the start of my annual visit.

Meantime, it came about one morning that Marguerite, who had been woken up by bright sunshine, leaped out of bed and asked me if I would like to take her out to the country for the day.

Prudence was sent for and the three of us set out, after Marguerite had left orders with Nanine to tell the Duke that she had wanted to make the most of the weather and had gone to the country with Madame Duvernoy.

Apart from the fact that the presence of la Duvernoy was necessary to set the old Duke's mind at rest, Prudence was the sort of woman who seems expressly cut out for country outings. With her unquenchable high spirits and insatiable appetite, she was quite incapable of allowing anyone she was with to be bored for an instant, and was more than likely to be an old hand at ordering the eggs, cherries, milk, sauted rabbit and all the usual ingredients of the traditional lunch for which the countryside around Paris is known.

All that remained was to decide where we should go.

Once again, it was Prudence who got us out of this difficulty.

'Is it the real country you want to go to?' she asked.


'Well, let's go to Bougival, to the Point du Jour. It's run by a widow named Arnould. Armand, go and hire a barouche.'

An hour and half later we were in the establishment run by the widow Arnould.

Perhaps you know the inn I mean: it is a hotel during the week and pleasure garden on Sundays. From the garden, which is raised and stands as high as an ordinary first floor, you get a magnificent view. On the left, the Marly aqueduct commands the horizon; on the right, the view unfolds across a never-ending succession of hills; the river, which at this point hardly moves at all, stretches away like a wide ribbon of shimmering white silk between the plain of Les Gabillons and the lle de Croissy, and is rocked ceaselessly by the whisper of its tall poplars and the soughing of its willows.

Far off, picked out in a wide swathe of sunlight, rise small white houses with red roofs, and factories which, shorn by distance of their grim, commercial character, complete the landscape in the most admirable way.

And, far off, Paris shrouded in smoke!

As Prudence had told us, it was really the country and, I must say, it was a real lunch we had.

It is not of gratitude for the happiness I have to thank the place for that I'm saying all this. Bougival, in spite of its unattractive name, is one of the prettiest spots you could possibly imagine. I have travelled a great deal and seen great sights, but none more charming than this tiny village cheerfully nestling at the foot of the hill which shelters it.

Madame Arnould offered to arrange for us to take a boat out on the river, and Marguerite and Prudence accepted with alacrity.

The countryside has always been associated with love, and rightly so. Nothing creates a more fitting backdrop to the woman you love than the blue sky, the fragrances, the flowers, the breezes, the solitary splendour of fields and woods. However much you love a woman, however much you trust her, however sure of the future her past life makes you, you are always jealous to some degree. If you have ever been in love, really in love, you must have experienced this need to shut out the world and isolate the person through whom you wished to live your whole life. It is as though the woman you love, however indifferent she may be to her surroundings, loses something of her savour and consistency when she comes into contact with men and things. Now I experienced this more intensely than any other man. Mine was no ordinary love; I was as much in love as mortal creature can be. But I loved Marguerite Gautier, which is to say that in Paris, at every turn, I might stumble across some man who had already been her lover, or would be the next day. Whereas, in the country, surrounded by people we had never seen before who paid no attention to us, surrounded by nature in all her springtime finery, which is her annual gesture of forgiveness, and far from the bustle of the city, I could shelter my love from prying eyes, and love without shame or fear.

There, the courtesan faded imperceptibly. At my side, I had a young and beautiful woman whom I loved, by whom I was loved and whose name was Marguerite: the shapes of the past dissolved and the future was free of clouds. The sun shone on my mistress as brightly as it would have shone on the purest fiancee. Together we strolled through delightful glades which seemed as though they were deliberately designed to remind you of lines by Lamartine and make you hum tunes by Scudo. Marguerite was wearing a white dress. She leaned on my arm. Beneath the starry evening sky, she repeated the words she had said to me the previous night, and in the distance the world went on turning without casting its staining shadow over the happy picture of our youth and love.

Such was the dream which that day's burning sun brought me through the leafy trees and I, lying full-length in the grass of the island where we had landed, free of all human ties which had hitherto bound me, allowed my mind to run free and gather up all the hopes it met with.

Add to this that, from the spot where I lay, I could see, on the bank, a charming little two-storied house which crouched behind a railing in the shape of a semi-circle. Beyond the railing, in front of the house, was a green lawn as smooth as velvet, and, behind the building, a small wood full of mysterious hideaways, where each morning all traces of the previous evening's passage would surely be all mossed over.

Climbing flowers hid the steps leading up to the door of this empty house, and hugged it as far up as the first floor.

Gazing long and hard at the house, I convinced myself in the end that it belonged to me, so completely did it enshrine the dream I was dreaming. I could picture Marguerite and me there together, by day walking in the wood which clothed the hill and, in the evenings, sitting on the lawn, and I wondered to myself if earthly creatures could ever be as happy as we two should be.

'What a pretty house!' said Marguerite, who had been following the direction of my eyes and perhaps my thoughts.

'Where?' said Prudence.

'Over there.' And Marguerite pointed to the house in question.

'Oh, it's lovely, ' replied Prudence. 'Do you like it?'

'Very much.'

'Well, then, tell the Duke to rent it for you. He'll rent it for you all right, I'm sure of it. You can leave it all to me if you want.'

Marguerite looked at me, as though to ask what I thought of the suggestion.

My dream had been shattered with these last words of Prudence, and its going had brought me back to reality with such a jolt that I was still dazed by the shock.

'Why, it's an excellent idea, ' I stammered, not knowing what I was saying.

'In that case, I'll arrange it, ' said Marguerite, squeezing my hand and interpreting my words according to her desires. 'Let's go this minute and see if it's to let.'

The house was empty, and to let for two thousand francs.

'Will you be happy here?' she said to me.

'Can I be sure of ever being here?'

'Who would I choose to bury myself here for, if not for you?'

'Listen, Marguerite, let me rent the house myself.'

'You must be mad! It's not only unnecessary, it would be dangerous. You know perfectly well that I can only take money from one man. So don't be difficult, silly boy, and don't say another word.'

'This way, when I've got a couple of days free, I can come down and spend them with you, ' said Prudence.

We left the house and set off back to Paris talking of this latest decision. I held Marguerite in my arms and, by the time we stepped out of the carriage, I was beginning to view my mistress's scheme with a less scrupulous eye.




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