La Dame aux camélias (Camille)

Chapter 17

Chinese

THE next day, Marguerite sent me away punctually, saying that the Duke was expected early that morning, and promising to write the moment he left to let me know where we should meet in the evening.

Accordingly, during the day, I received this note:

'Am going to Bougival with the Duke. Be at Prudence's this evening at eight.'

At the appointed time, Marguerite was back and she came to meet me at Madame Duvernoy's.

'Well, it's all arranged, ' she said as she came in.

'The house is taken?' asked Prudence.

'Yes. He agreed at once.'

I did not know the Duke, but I was ashamed to be deceiving him like this.

'But that's not all, ' Marguerite went on.

'There's more?'

'I was worried about where Armand could stay.'

'Not in the same house?' asked Prudence with a laugh.

'No, at the Point du Jour, where the Duke and I had lunch. While he was looking at the view, I asked Madame Arnould ?she is called Madame Arnould, isn't she? I asked her if she had any suitable apartments. And she has one, with a drawing-room, a reception room and a bedroom. That's all we need, I'd say. Sixty francs a month. The whole place furnished in a manner that would take a hypochondriac's mind off his ailments. I took it. Did I do well?'

I flung my arms around Marguerite's neck.

'It'll be lovely, ' she went on. 'You'll have a key to the side door, and I promised the Duke that he shall have a key to the main gate which he won't take since he'll only ever come during the day when he comes at all. Between ourselves, I think he's delighted by this whim of mine, for it'll get me out of Paris for a while and help to shut his family up. Even so, he did ask how it was that I, who love Paris so much, could make up my mind to bury myself in the country. I told him I wasn't well and this way I could rest. He didn't seem to believe me altogether. The poor old thing always seems to have his back against a wall. So we will be very careful, dear Armand, because he'll have me watched there. And he's not done with just renting a house for me: he's also going to have to pay my debts and, unfortunately, I've a few of those. Is all this all right with you?'

'Yes, ' I replied, trying to silence the scruples which this kind of life a wakened from time to time.

'We went over the house from top to bottom, and it will be just perfect for us. The Duke fussed over everything. Ah, my dear, ' she added, kissing me like a mad thing, 'you can't complain, you've got a millionaire to make you bed for you.'

'And when are you thinking of moving down there?' asked Prudence.

'As soon as possible.'

'Will you be taking your carriage and the horses?'

'I shall be taking everything. You can look after the apartment while I'm away.'

A week later, Marguerite had taken possession of the house in the country and I was installed at the Point du Jour.

And so began a life which I could hardly attempt to describe to you.

In the early days of her stay at Bougival, Marguerite was unable to make a complete break with her old ways and, since the house was always in a party mood, all her girlfriends came down to see her. A month went by without a single day when Marguerite did not have eight or ten people sitting round her table. For her part, Prudence invited along everybody she knew and did all the honours of the house, as though the place belonged to her.

The Duke's money paid for it all, as you will have gathered, yet even so Prudence was apt to ask me, from time to time, for the odd thousand- franc note, saying that it was for Marguerite. As you know, I had won some money at the gaming table. So I promptly handed over to Prudence what Marguerite, through her, had asked me for, and, fearing that she might need more than I had, I travelled up to Paris where I borrowed the equivalent of the sum of money which I had borrowed before and had repaid in full.

I thus found myself rich once more to the tune of ten thousand francs or so, in addition to my allowance.

However, the pleasure Marguerite derived from playing host to her women friends slackened off somewhat in view of the expense it involved, and especially in view of the fact that she was on occasion forced to ask me for money. The Duke, who had leased the house so that Marguerite could rest, stopped coming altogether, fearing as always that he would run into a large and high- spirited gathering of people by whom he had no wish to be seen. The reason largely for this was that, turning up one day for a private dinner with Marguerite, he had wandered into the middle of a luncheon party for fifteen which was still going on at a time when he had imagined he would be sitting down to his dinner. When, all unsuspecting, he had opened the dining-room door, his entrance had been greeted by a burst of laughter, and he had been obliged to withdraw hurriedly in the face of the withering glee of the girls who were there.

Marguerite had left the table, caught up with the Duke in the next room and had done everything she could to make him overlook the incident. But the old man's pride had been wounded, and he had taken umbrage: he had told the poor girl quite cruelly that he was tired of footing the bill for the follies of a woman who could not even ensure that he was respected under her roof, and he had left very angry.

From that day on, we heard nothing more of him. Marguerite sent her guests away and changed her ways, but it did no good: the Duke did not contact her thereafter. I had gained thereby, for my mistress now belonged to me more completely, and my dream was at last coming true. Marguerite could no longer live without me. Without worrying her head about the consequence, she flaunted our affair publicly, and I reached the point where I never left her house. The servants called me ' sir' and regarded me officially as their master.

Of course, Prudence had lectured Marguerite about her new life very sternly, but Marguerite had replied that she loved me, could not live without me and, however it all turned out, would not forgo the joy of having me constantly at her side. And she added that anyone who did not like it was perfectly free to stay away.

I had heard this for myself one day when Prudence told Marguerite that she had something very important to say to her, and I had listened at the door of the bedroom in which they had closeted themselves.

Some days later, Prudence came down to see us again.

I was at the bottom of the garden when she arrived. She did not see me. Judging by the way Marguerite had gone to meet her, I suspected that another conversation like the one I had already overheard was about to take place, and I was no less anxious to hear what was said.

The two women shut themselves in a parlour and I took up my position.

'Well?' asked Marguerite.

'Well now, I saw the Duke.'

'What did he say?'

'He said he was quite ready to forgive that first scene, but he'd found out that you were living openly with Monsieur Armand Duval. He couldn't forgive that.' "If Marguerite leaves this young man," he told me, "I'll give her anything she wants, as in the past. If she doesn't, she can stop asking me for anything."'

'What did you say to that?'

'I said I'd pass on his decision, and I promised I'd make you see sense. Just think, dear girl, of the niche you'll be losing. Armand will never be able to make it up to you. He loves you with all his soul, but he doesn't have the money to pay for everything you need, and some day he's bound to leave you ?when it'll be too late, and the Duke won't want to lend any more helping hands. Do you want me to speak to Armand?'

Marguerite seemed to be thinking, for she did not reply. My heart beat violently as I waited for her answer.

'No, ' she resumed, 'I shall not leave Armand, and I shan't hide myself away so that I can go on living with him. Madness it may be, but I love him, there it is! And anyway, he's got into the habit of loving me without anything standing in his way. It would be much too painful for him to have to leave me for even an hour a day. Besides, I haven't got so much time to live that I can afford to make myself miserable just to please an old man: the very sight of him makes me feel old. Let him keep his money. I'll manage without.'

'But what will you do?'

'I have no idea.'

Prudence was probably about to reply to this, but I burst in, ran across to Marguerite and threw myself at her feet, covering her hands with the tears which the joy of being loved made me shed.

'My life is yours, Marguerite, You don't need this man: am I not here? How could I ever desert you? How could I ever repay the happiness you give me? Away with all constraints, dearest Marguerite! We love each other! What does the rest matter?'

'Oh yes! I do love you, my Armand!' she murmured, circling my neck with both arms, 'I love you as I never believed I could love anybody. We will be happy, we'll live in peace, and I'll say goodbye forever to the old life I'm so ashamed of now. You'll never hold my past against me, will you?'

The tears dimmed my voice. The only answer I could give was to clasp Marguerite to my heart.

'Come, ' she said, turning to Prudence, her voice tinged with emotion, 'you can go and report this scene to the Duke and, while you're at it, tell him we don't need him.'

From that day on, the Duke was never mentioned again. Marguerite was no longer the girl I had met. She avoided anything which might have reminded me of the life she had been leading when I first made her acquaintance. Never did wife or sister show husband or brother such love, such consideration as she showed me. Her state of health left her open to sensation, and made her vulnerable to her feelings. She had broken with her women friends just as she had broken with her old ways; she controlled her language just as she curbed the old extravagance. Had you observed us leave the house for an outing in a delightful little boat I had bought, you would never have thought that this woman in a white dress, wearing a large straw hat and carrying on her arm a simple fur-lined silk coat which would protect her against the chill of the water, was the same Marguerite Gautier who, four months before, had attracted such attention with her extravagant ways and scandalous conduct.

Alas! we made haste to be happy, as though we had sensed that we should not be happy for long.

We had not set foot in Paris for two months. No one had come down to see us, except Prudence and the same Julie Duprat whom I have already mentioned as the person in whose keeping Marguerite would later place the moving story now in my possession.

I spent whole days at my mistress's feet. We would open the windows overlooking the garden and, as we watched the bright summer swoop down and open the flowers and settle under the trees, we would sit side by side and drink in this real, live world which neither Marguerite nor I had understood before.

She reacted with childish wonder to the most trivial things. There were days when she ran round the garden, like a girl of ten, chasing a butterfly or a dragonfly. This courtesan, who had made men spend more on flowers than would be needed to enable a whole family to live without a care, would sometimes sit on the lawn for an hour on end, examining the simple flower whose name she bore.

It was at this time that she read Manon Lescaut so frequently. Many a time, I caught her writing in the margin of the book. And she always said that if a woman is truly in love, then that woman could never do what Manon did.

The Duke wrote to her two or three times. She recognized his writing and gave me his letters unread.

On occasions, the wording of his letters brought tears to my eyes.

He had thought that, by closing his purse to Marguerite, he could make her go back to him. But when he saw how ineffective his stratagem was, he was unable to carry it through. He had written, again asking her, as he had asked in the past, to allow him back to the fold, whatever conditions she chose to set for his return.

I thus had read his pressing, repeated letters and had torn them up, without telling Marguerite what they said or advising her to see the old man again? though a feeling of pity for the poor man's unhappiness did tempt me to do so. But I was afraid that she would see in my urging no more than a wish on my part to see the Duke resume his old visits, and thereby to see him assume responsibility once more for the household expenses. And above all, I feared that she would conclude that her love for me might lead to situations in which I would be capable of repudiating my responsibilities for her existence.

The outcome was that the Duke, continuing to receive no answer, eventually stopped writing, and Marguerite and I continued our life together without a thought for the future.

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