La Dame aux camélias (Camille)

Chapter 22

Chinese

I FELT that the train was hardly moving.

I reached Bougival at eleven.

Not one window in the house was lit. I rang, but no one answered.

It was the first time anything like this had happened. At length, the gardener appeared I entered the house.

Nanine met me with a light. I reached Marguerite's room.

'Where is your mistress?'

'Madame has gone to Paris, ' Nanine answered.

'Paris!'

'Yes, sir.'

'When?'

'An hour after you.'

'Did she leave anything for you to give me?'

'Nothing.'

Nanine left me.

'It's quite likely she was afraid, ' I thought, 'and went to Paris to see for herself whether the visit I'd said I was going to make to my father's wasn't just an excuse for having a day away from her.

'Perhaps Prudence wrote to her about something important, ' I said to myself when I was alone. 'But I saw Prudence as soon as I got there, and she didn't say anything to make me suppose that she'd written to Marguerite.'

Suddenly, I recalled the question Madame Duvernoy had asked me: 'So she's not coming today?' when I had told her Marguerite was ill. Simultaneously, I remembered Prudence's embarrassed reaction when I'd stared at her after hearing her words, which had seemed to hint at a secret rendezvous. To this was added my recollection of the tears Marguerite had wept all that day which had been pushed into the back of my mind by my father's warm welcome.

From this moment on, all of the day's events began to congregate around my original suspicion and rooted it so firmly in my thoughts that everything seemed to confirm it, even my father's leniency.

Marguerite had virtually insisted that I should go to Paris. She had pretended to be calm when I suggested I should stay by her side. Had I fallen into a trap? Was Marguerite deceiving me? Had she counted on getting back in sufficiently good time for me to remain unaware of her absence, and had some chance occurrence detained her? Why had she not said anything to Nanine, or why had she not left me a note? What was the meaning of the tears, her absence, this whole mystery?

Such were the questions which, with some trepidation, I put to myself as I stood in that empty bedroom, with my eyes fixed on the clock which, striking midnight, seemed to be telling me that it was too late now for me to hope to see my mistress return.

And yet, after the plans we had made, after the sacrifice which had been offered and accepted, was it likely she should be unfaithful? No. I made a conscious effort to dismiss my initial assumptions.

'The poor girl has probably found a buyer for her furniture and has gone to Paris to finalize the details. She didn't want to tell me beforehand because she knows that, though I may have agreed to her selling everything, for our future happiness depends on it, I don't like the idea at all. She was afraid she'd wound my pride and my scruples if she mentioned it. She'd much prefer to turn up again when everything is settled. It's obvious that Prudence was expecting her in connection with all this, and she gave herself away to me. Marguerite won't have been able to conclude her business today and is spending the night in her apartment, or perhaps she'll be here any minute, for she must have some idea of how anxious I am and certainly won't want to leave me to worry.

'But if that's the way of it, why the tears? She loves me of course, but I expect the poor girl couldn't help crying at the thought of giving up the luxury she's lived in up to now, for it made her happy and envied.'

I readily forgave Marguerite her regrets. I waited impatiently for her to come so that I could tell her, as I smothered her in kisses, that I had guessed the reason for her mysterious absence.

But the night wore on and still Marguerite did not come.

Imperceptibly, my anxiety tightened its hold, and gripped both my mind and my heart. Perhaps something had happened to her! Perhaps she was lying injured or ill or dead! Perhaps I would see a messenger arrive with news of some terrible accident! Perhaps the new day would find me still plunged in the same uncertainties, the same fears!

The thought that Marguerite was being unfaithful to me even as I waited in the midst of the terrors unleashed by her absence, no longer entered my head. There had to be some good reason, independent of her will, to keep her far from me, and the more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that this reason could only be some misfortune or other. Oh, the pride of man assumes protean shapes!

It had just struck one. I told myself I would wait another hour and then, if Marguerite were not back by two o'clock, I would leave for Paris.

To while away the time, I looked for a book, for I dared not let myself think.

Manon Lescaut lay open on the table. It appeared to me that here and there the pages were damp, as though tears had been shed over them. After skimming through the volume, I closed it: the print made no sense through the veil of my doubts.

Time passed slowly. The sky was overcast. Autumn rain lashed the windows. At times, the empty bed seemed, I thought, to resemble a grave. I felt afraid.

I opened the door. I listened, but heard nothing save the sound of the wind in the trees. No carriage rattled by on the road outside. Half past struck lugubriously from the church tower.

I had reached the point where I was afraid that someone would come. I felt that only misfortune would come seeking me out at such an hour and in such dismal weather.

It struck two. I waited a little longer. Only the regular, rhythmic ticking of the clock disturbed the silence.

At length, I left the room. Even the most trivial object in it had assumed that air of gloom which an anxious and lonely heart lends to everything around it.

In the next room, I found Nanine asleep over her needle work. The creaking of the door woke her, and she asked me if her mistress had returned.

'No, but if she does, you will say that I couldn't stand the worry and that I've gone to Paris.'

'At this time of night?'

'Yes.'

'But how will you get there? You won't find a carriage now.'

'I'll walk.'

'But it's raining.'

'So?'

'Madame will be back, or if she's not, there'll still be time in the morning to go and see what's kept her. You'll get yourself murdered on the way.'

'There's no danger of that, my dear Nanine. I'll see you tomorrow.'

She was a good girl and went to get my coat. She helped me on with it, offered to run round and wake the widow Arnould to enquire whether it would be possible to order a carriage. But I said no. I was certain that her efforts, which might in any case come to nothing, would waste more time than it would take for me to get half way there.

Besides, I needed air, needed to tire myself physically as a way of working off the agitation which gripped me.

I took the key to the apartment in the rue d'Antin and, saying goodbye to Nanine who came with me as far as the gates, I left.

At first, I set off at a run, but the ground was wet with the recent rain, and I tired quickly. After running for half an hour, I was forced to stop. I was bathed in perspiration. I recovered my breath and went on. The night was so dark that I went in constant fear of colliding with one of the trees lining the road which, as they loomed up unexpectedly, looked like enormous ghosts bearing down on me.

I encountered one or two waggoner's carts, but soon left them behind.

A barouche passed making for Bougival at a fast trot. As it drew level with me, my hopes rose that Marguerite was inside.

I stopped and shouted: 'Marguerite! Marguerite!'

But no one answered and the barouche continued on its way. I watched it go, and then set off again.

It took me two hours to get to the Barriere de l'Etoile.

The sight of Paris revived me, and I ran down the long avenue which I had walked along so often.

That night, no one was walking along it.

It was like an avenue in a dead city.

Day was just beginning to break.

When I reached the rue d'Antin, the great city was already beginning to stir before waking.

The clock of the church of Saint- Roch was striking five when I entered the building where Marguerite lived.

I flung my name at the porter, who had got enough twenty-franc tips out of me to know I was quite entitled to call on Mademoiselle Gautier at five in the morning.

In this way, I got past him unimpeded.

I could have asked him if Marguerite was at home. But he might have replied that she wasn't, and I preferred to keep my doubts for another two minutes. While there was doubt there was hope.

I listened at her door, trying to detect a sound or a movement.

But there was nothing. The silence of the country seemed to extend as far as here.

I unlocked the door and went inside.

All the curtains were tightly closed.

I drew back those in the dining- room and made for the bedroom. I pushed the door open.

I leaped on the curtain cord and pulled it savagely.

The curtains opened. A faint glimmer of light pierced the gloom and I ran over to the bed.

It was empty!

I opened all the doors one after another. I looked in all the rooms.

There was no one there.

I thought I would go out of my mind.

I went into the dressing-room, opened the window and called several times to Prudence.

Madame Duvernoy's window remained shut.

Then I went down to the porter's lodge and asked him if Mademoiselle Gautier had been to her apartment the previous day.

'Yes, ' the man said, 'with Madame Duvernoy.'

'She left no word for me?'

'No.'

'Do you know what they did afterwards?'

'They got into a carriage.'

'What sort of carriage?'

'A gentleman's brougham.'

What could it all mean?

I rang at the house next door.

'Who are you wanting, sir?' the porter asked as he opened the door to me.

'Madame Duvernoy.'

'She's not back.'

'Are you sure?'

'Yes, sir. There's even a letter that was delivered yesterday evening that I haven't had chance to give her.'

And the man showed me a letter at which I glanced mechanically.

I recognized Marguerite's handwriting.

I took the letter.

It was addressed like this: 'To Madame Duvernoy, to be given to Monsieur Duval.'

'This letter is for me, ' I told the porter, and I showed him the address.

'Are you Monsieur Duval?' the man answered.

'Yes.'

'Now I recognize you. You often come here to see Madame Duvernoy.'

As soon as I was in the street, I broke open the seal on the letter.

Had lightning struck at my feet, I would not have been more appalled than by what I read.

'By the time you read this, Armand, I shall be another man's mistress. Consequently, all is finished between us.

Go back to your father, my dear. Go and see your sister. She's a pure young woman who knows nothing of all our miseries. With her, you will very quickly forget what you have suffered at the hands of a fallen creature named Marguerite Gautier who, for an instant, you truly loved and who stands in your debt for the only happy moments in her life which, she hopes, will not last much longer.'

When I reached the end, I thought I was going out of my mind.

For a moment, I was genuinely afraid that I would collapse on to the cobbles of the street. My eyes clouded over and the blood pulsated in my temples.

After a while, I recovered something of my composure and looked around me in astonishment as I saw other people going about their lives without pausing over my unhappiness.

I was not strong enough by myself to bear the blow which Marguerite had dealt me.

Then I recalled that my father was there in the same city as myself, that I could be with him in ten minutes and that, whatever the reason for my sorrows, he would share them.

I ran like a madman, like a thief, all the way to the Hotel de Paris. The key was in the door of my father's apartment. I let myself in.

He was reading.

Judging by the small show of surprise which he displayed when he saw me, you might have thought that he had been expecting me.

I flung myself into his arms without a word, gave him Marguerite's letter and, sliding to the floor at his bedside, wept long, bitter tears.

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