La Dame aux camélias (Camille)

Chapter 18

Chinese

TO tell you of our new life in any detail would be no easy matter. It was made up of a series of frivolous diversions which, though delightful to us, would be quite meaningless to anyone who heard me recount them. You know what it is to love a woman. You know how short the days seem and how loving the ease with which you let yourself drift towards the morrow. You are acquainted with that general neglect of things which is bred of violent, trusting, requited love. Any mortal being who is not the woman you love seems superfluous to creation. You regret having tossed pieces of your heart to other women, and you cannot imagine the prospect of ever holding a hand which is not the hand that you now hold clasped in yours. Your brain will entertain neither work nor memories, nor anything which might divert it from the one thought with which it is endlessly regaled. Each day you discover some new attraction in your mistress, some unknown sensual delight.

Life is no more than the repeated fulfilling of a permanent desire. The soul is merely the vestal handmaid whose task is to keep the sacred flame of love burning.

Often, after dark, we would go and sit in the little wood which overlooked the house. There we listened to the happy song of evening as we both thought of the approaching moment which would leave us in each other's arms till morning. At other times, we would stay in bed all day and not let even the sun into our bedroom. The curtains would be tightly drawn, and for us the world outside momentarily stopped turning. Nanine alone was authorized to open our door, but only to bring us our meals? and even so we ate them without getting up, and interrupted them constantly with laughter and all kinds of foolishness. And then would follow a few moments of sleep, for, retreating completely into our love, we were like two persistent divers who return to the surface only to take breath.

However, I would catch Marguerite looking sad, and sometimes there were tears in her eyes. I would ask what was the reason for her sudden dejection and she would answer:

'This love of ours, my dearest Armand, is no ordinary love. You love me as though I'd never belonged to anyone else, and I tremble for fear that with time, regretting that you ever loved me and turning my past into a crime to hold against me, you might force me to resume the life from which you took me. Remember this: now that I've tasted a new kind of life, I should die if I had to take up the old one. So tell me you'll never leave me.'

'I swear it!'

At this, she would stare at me, as though she could read in my eyes whether my oath was sincere. Then she would throw herself into my arms and, burying her head in my chest, say:

'It's just that you have no idea how much I love you!'

One evening, we were leaning over the balcony outside our window. We gazed at the moon struggling to rise from its bed of clouds. We listened to the noise of the wind as it shook the trees. We held hands, and had not spoken for a good quarter of an hour when Marguerite said:

'Winter's coming. Would you like us to go away?'

'Where would we go?'

'Italy.'

'Are you bored here?'

'I'm afraid of winter. And I'm even more afraid of our going back to Paris.'

'Why?'

'Lots of reasons.'

And she went on quickly, without explaining the reasons for her fears:

'Do you want to leave this place? I'll sell everything I have. We'll go and live far away. There'll be nothing left of the person I used to be. No one will know who I am. Would you like that?'

'We'll go, if that's what you want, Let's travel, 'I said, 'but why the need to sell things you'll be glad to have when we get back? I haven't got enough money to accept a sacrifice like that, but I do have enough for us to travel in style for five or six months, if you fancy the idea at all. '

'If that's the way of it, no, ' she continued, leaving the window and moving to the sofa in the dark shadow of the bedroom. 'What's the point of going all that way to spend money? I cost you enough here as it is.'

'That sounds like a reproach, Marguerite. You're being ungracious.'

'Forgive me, my dear, ' she said, holding out her hand to me, 'this stormy weather makes me irritable. I'm not saying what I mean. '

And, after kissing me, she sat for a long time, lost in thought.

Scenes like this occurred on several occasions and, though I remained ignorant as to their cause, I nevertheless sensed in Marguerite a feeling of anxiety for the future. It was not that she could have any doubts about my love for her, for it grew deeper with each passing day. And yet I often saw that she was sad, though she never explained why she was sad other than by alleging some physical reason.

Fearing that she would weary of too monotonous a life, I suggested that we might return to Paris, but she invariably rejected the suggestion, and assured me that she could not be as happy anywhere as she was in the country.

Prudence made only rare visits now. On the other hand, she wrote a number of letters which I never asked to see, although each one left Marguerite deeply preoccupied. I did not know what to make of it.

One day, Marguerite remained in her room. I entered. She was writing.

'Who are you writing to?' I asked her.

'Prudence. Do you want me to read out what I've written?'

I had a profound distaste for anything that could seem like suspiciousness. So I answered Marguerite saying that there was no need for me to know what she was writing. And yet, I was sure of it, that letter would have acquainted me with the real reason for her fits of sadness.

The next day, the weather was superb. Marguerite suggested that we might take a boat out on the river and visit the lle de Croissy. She seemed in the best of spirits. It was five o'clock by the time we got back.

'Madame Duvernoy came, ' said Nanine as soon as she saw us come in.

'Did she go away again?' asked Marguerite.

'Yes, in Madame's carriage. She said it was all right to take it.'

'Very good, ' said Marguerite quickly. 'Let dinner be served at once.'

Two days later, there was a letter from Prudence, and for the next fortnight Marguerite seemed to have done with her mysterious sad moods, for which she never stopped asking me to forgive her now that they had ceased.

However, the carriage did not come back.

'How is it that Prudence hasn't returned your brougham?' I asked one day.

'One of the horses is sick, and the carriage needs some repairs. It's better for all that to be done while we are still here where we don't need a carriage, than to wait until we get back to Paris.'

Prudence came down to see us a few days after this and confirmed what Marguerite had told me.

The two women went for a stroll by themselves in the garden, and when I joined them they changed the subject they had been discussing.

That evening, as she was going, Prudence complained of the cold and asked Marguerite to lend her an Indian shawl.

And so a month went by during which Marguerite was gayer and more loving than she had ever been.

However, the carriage had not come back, and the Indian shawl had not been returned. All this puzzled me in spite of myself and, since I knew in which drawer Marguerite kept Prudence's letters, I took advantage of a moment when she was at the bottom of the garden, hurried to the drawer and tried to open it. But it was no use: it was double-locked.

I then searched through the drawers where her trinkets and diamonds were normally kept. They opened without difficulty, but the jewel-cases had disappeared ?along with their contents, naturally.

A pang of fear shot through my heart.

I was about to go and ask Marguerite to tell me exactly why these items were missing. But I knew for certain that she would not admit the truth.

So I said: 'My dear Marguerite, I want to ask if it's all right for me to go up to town. No one where I live knows where I am, and there must have been letters from my father. I expect he's worried. I must write to him.'

'Go, my dear, ' she said. 'But be back soon.'

I left.

I hurried round to Prudence's at once.

'Look here, ' I said, without preamble of any sort, 'answer me frankly: where are Marguerite's horses?'

'Sold.'

'Her shawl?'

'Sold.'

'The diamonds?'

'Pawned.'

'And who did the selling and the pawning?'

'I did.'

'Why didn't you tell me about all this?'

'Because Marguerite ordered me not to.'

'And why didn't you ask me for money?'

'Because she wouldn't let me.'

'And what's the money been spent on?'

'Paying debts.'

'So she owes great deal?'

'There's thirty thousand francs or so outstanding. I told you, dear, didn't I? You just wouldn't believe me. Well then, are you convinced now? The upholsterer, who had the Duke as her guarantor, was shown the door when he went to see the Duke who wrote him a letter the next day saying that he wouldn't lift a finger for Mademoiselle Gautier. The man wanted money. He was given something on account? the few thousand francs I asked you for. Then some kind souls let him know that his non-paying customer had been dropped by the Duke and was living with some young man who had no money. The other creditors were likewise told. They demanded money, and repossessed some of their goods.

Marguerite wanted to sell everything, but it was too late and, besides, I should have been against it. She had to pay of course, and to avoid asking you for money, she sold her horses and her Indian shawls and pawned her jewels. Do you want the buyers' receipts and the pawn tickets?'

And, pulling out a drawer, Prudence showed me the papers.

'Do you imagine, ' she continued, as persistent as any woman who is entitled to say: 'I was right!' 'do you imagine that it's enough to love each other and go off to the country and live some dreamy, rustic life? Oh no, my dear. Alongside the ideal life, there's the necessities to think of, and the purest designs are earthbound, secured by threads which, ludicrous though they may be, are made of steel and cannot be easily snapped. If Marguerite hasn't deceived you twenty times and more it's because she has an exceptional nature. It's not her fault if I advised her to do so, because it grieved me to see the poor girl strip herself of everything. And she wouldn't have anything to do with it! She told me she loved you and wouldn't deceive you for anything. All that's very nice, very poetic, but it's not coin you can pay off criditors with. And now she's reached the stage where she won't get away with it unless she comes up with, let me say it again, thirty thousand francs.'

'It's all right. I'll find the money.'

'You'll borrow it?'

'But of course.'

'Now that would be really clever. You'll fall out with your father, tie up your allowance and, anyway, you can't just come up with thirty thousand francs from one day to the next. Take it from me, my dear Armand, I know women better than you do. Don't do it: it would be sheer folly and you'd regret it some day. Be reasonable. I don't say you should leave Marguerite; just live with her on the same footing as at the start of the summer. Let her find ways out of this mess. The Duke will come round gradually. Count de N, if she takes him on, he was telling me just yesterday, will pay all her debts and give her four or five thousand francs a month. He's got two hundred thousand livres a year. She'll be set up, whereas you're going to have to leave her in any case: don't wait until you're ruined, especially since this Count de N is a fool and there'll be nothing to stop you being Marguerite's lover. She'll cry a little to start with, but she'll get used to it in the end, and she'll thank you one day for what you did. Tell yourself that Marguerite's married, and then deceive her husband. That's all there's to it.

'I've already told you all this once. But then I was just giving you advice. Today, you've got very little option.'

Prudence was right, cruelly right.

'That's how it is, ' she continued, shutting away the papers she had just shown me. 'Kept women always expect that there'll be men around who'll love them, but they never imagine that they themselves will fall in love. Otherwise, they'd put a bit to one side and, by the time they're thirty, they'd be able to afford the luxury of taking a lover who pays nothing. If only I'd known once what I know once what I know now! But that's by the by. Don't say anything to Marguerite; just bring her back to Paris. You've had four or five months alone with her, which isn't bad. Turn a blind eye, that's all you're asked to do. Within a fortnight, she'll take on Count de N, she'll put some money by this winter, and then next summer you can pick up where you left off. That's how it's done, my dear!'

Prudence seemed delighted with her advice, which I rejected indignantly.

Not only did love and self-respect make it impossible for me to act along these lines, but I was further convinced that, having got to the stage she had now reached, Marguerite would rather die than accept such an arrangement.

'Enough of this nonsense, ' I told Prudence. 'How much exactly does Marguerite need?'

'I told you. Around thirty thousand francs.'

'And when must she have it?'

'Within two months.'

'She'll have it.'

Prudence shrugged her shoulders.

'I'll get it to you, ' I continued. 'But you must swear you'll never tell Marguerite that I gave it to you.'

'Don't worry, I won't.'

'And if she sends you anything else to sell or pawn, let me know.'

'There's no danger of that. She's got nothing left.'

From there, I went to my apartment to see if there were any letters from my father.

There were four.

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