La Dame aux camélias (Camille)

Chapter 23

Chinese

WHEN I was something like myself once more, I could not believe that the new day which was dawning would not be exactly like all the days that had gone before. There were moments when I felt that some circumstance or other, which I could not remember, had obliged me to spend the night away from Marguerite, and that, if I returned to Bougival, I should find her waiting anxiously, just as I had waited, and she would ask me what had kept me from her.

When your life has become so dependent on a habit as strong as our habit of loving, it hardly seems possible that the habit can be broken without also demolishing everything else which buttresses your life.

And so, from time to time, I was driven to reread Marguerite's letter, to convince myself that I had not been dreaming.

My body, giving way under the nervous shock, was incapable of any kind of movement. The worry, my walk through the night and the morning's revelations had exhausted me. My father took advantage of my state of total collapse to ask me for my strict promise that I would go away with him.

I promised everything he asked. I was incapable of arguing, and stood in need of sincere affection to help me over what had happened.

I was very glad that my father felt able to comfort me in my great sorrow.

All I remember is that the same day, at about five o'clock, he put us both into a post-chaise. Without telling me, he had arranged for my trunks to be got ready and had them strapped along with his to the back of the carriage, and then he took me away with him.

I became aware of what I was doing only when the city had dropped behind us, when the empty road reminded me of the emptiness in my heart.

Then the tears got the better of me once more.

My father had sensed that words alone, even his words, could not comfort me, and he let me cry without saying anything, content to pat my hand from time to time, as though to remind me that I had a friend at my side.

That night, I slept a little. I dreamed of Marguerite.

I woke with a start. I could not understand what I was doing in a carriage.

Then reality returned, and I let my head fall on to my chest.

I dared not talk to my father, for I was still afraid that he would say: 'You do see I was right when I told you that woman didn't love you, '

But he took no unfair advantage of the situation, and we reached C without his having spoken save of matters completely foreign to the events which had led to my departure.

When I embraced my sister, I was reminded of the words in Marguerite's letter concerning her. But I saw at once that, however fine and good she was, my sister could never make me forget my mistress.

The hunting season had begun, and my father thought that a spot of shooting might take my mind off things. So he organized hunting parties with neighbours and friends. I went along as unprotesting as I was unenthusiastic, in the mood of apathy which had characterized all my actions since my departure.

We went out with beaters. I would be installed in my butt. Then I would put my unloaded gun beside me and let my mind wander.

I watched the clouds pass over. I let my thoughts run wild over the deserted plains and, from time to time, would hear one of the hunters signalling that there was a hare not ten paces in front of me.

None of this escaped my father's notice, and he refused to allow himself to be taken in by my outward calm. He was quite aware that, however unmanned my heart was now, it could provoke a terrible, perhaps even dangerous reaction at any time, and, going out of his way to avoid giving the impression that he was consoling me, he did his utmost to occupy my mind with other things.

Of course, my sister had been told nothing of the events which had occurred. She thus found it difficult to under stand why I, who had always been so carefree, should suddenly have become so preoccupied and melancholy.

Sometimes in my sadness, catching my father's anxious eye, I would reach out to him and grasp his hand as though to ask a silent pardon for the unhappiness which, despite myself, I was causing him.

A month went by in this manner, but a month was all I could bear.

The memory of Marguerite pursued me wherever I went. I had loved that woman? still loved her? too much for her suddenly to cease to mean anything to me. Whatever feelings I might have for her now, I had to see her again. At once.

The longing to do so crept into my mind and took root there with all the force which the will displays when finally it reasserts itself in a body that has long remained inert.

I needed Marguerite, not at some time in the future, not in a month nor a week from the moment the idea first entered my head, but before another day passed. I immediately went to my father and told him that I proposed to take my leave to attend to some matters which had called me back to Paris, but added that I would return promptly.

He probably guessed the real reasons for my departure, because he insisted that I should stay. But, seeing that if my desires were thwarted, then in my present excitable state, the consequences might prove fatal to me, he embraced me and begged me, almost tearfully, to come back to him soon.

I did not sleep all the way to Paris.

What would I do when I got there? I had no idea. But the first thing was to attend to Marguerite.

I went to my apartment to change and, as it was fine and still not too late in the day, I went to the Champs- Elysees.

A half an hour later, in the distance, coming from the Rond-Point down to the Place de la Concorde, I saw Marguerite's carriage approaching.

She had bought back her horses, for the carriage was just as it used to be. Only she was not in it.

I had only just noticed that she was not inside when, looking round me, I saw Marguerite walking towards me in the company of a woman I had never seen before.

As she passed quite close to me, she turned pale and her lips contracted into an uneasy smile. As for me, my heart beat so violently that it took my breath away. But I managed to give a cold expression to my face and a cold greeting to my former mistress, who went back to her carriage almost at once and got into it with her friend.

I knew Marguerite. Meeting me so unexpectedly must have thrown her into a state of great confusion. In all likelihood, she had got to hear of my departure which had set her mind at rest as to the consequences of our sudden parting. But, seeing me back and coming face to face with me, pale as I was, she had sensed that my return had a purpose, and must have wondered what was going to happen.

If, when I saw her again, Marguerite had been unhappy; if, in taking my revenge, there had also been some way of helping her ?then I might well have forgiven her, and would certainly never have dreamed of doing her any harm. But when I saw her again, she was happy, at least on the surface. Another man had restored her to the luxury in which I had been unable to keep her. Our estrangement, which she had initiated, accordingly acquired the stamp of the basest self- interest. I was humiliated both in my pride and my love: she was going to have to pay for what I had suffered.

I could not remain indifferent to what she did now. It followed that the thing that would hurt her most would be precisely for me to show indifference. Indifference, therefore, was the sentiment which I now needed to feign, not only in her presence but in the eyes of others.

I tried to put a smile on my face, and I went to call on Prudence.

Her maid went in to announce me, and kept me waiting briefly in the drawing-room.

Madame Duvernoy appeared at length and showed me into her parlour. As I was about to sit down, I heard the drawing-room door open and a light footfall made a floorboard creak. Then the door to the landing slammed shut.

'I'm not disturbing you?' I asked Prudence.

'Not in the least. Marguerite was with me. When she heard you being announced, she ran away. That was her just leaving.'

'So now I scare her?'

'No, but she's afraid you wouldn't relish seeing her again.

'Why ever not? 'I said, making an effort to breathe freely, for my emotions were choking me. 'The poor creature left me so that she could get her carriage and furniture and diamonds back. She was quite right, and it's not for me to bear grudges. I ran into her earlier on, ' I went on nonchalantly.

'Where?' said Prudence, who was staring at me and evidently wondering if this was the same man she had known so much in love.

'On the Champs-Elysees. She was with another, very attractive woman. Who would that be?'

'What's she look like?

''A blonde girl, slim. Had her hair in ringlets. Blue eyes, very fashionably dressed.'

'Ah! That's Olympe. Yes, she's a very pretty girl.'

'Who's she living with?'

'Nobody. Everybody.'

'And her address?'

'In the rue Tronchet, number...Well, I declare! You want to take up with her?'

'You never know what can happen.'

'And Marguerite?'

'I'd be lying if I told you that I never think of her any more. But I'm one of those men who set great store by the way an affair is ended. Now Marguerite gave me my marching orders in such an offhand sort of way, that I was left feeling I'd been rather silly to have fallen in love with her the way I did? for I really was in love with her. '

You can guess in what tone of voice I tried to say all this: the perspiration was pouring off my forehead.

'She loved you too, you know, and still does. You want proof? Well, after she met you today, she came straight round here to tell me all about it. When she got here, she was all of a tremble, almost ill she was.'

'And what did she tell you?'

'She said: "I expect he'll come to see you," and she begged me to ask you to forgive her.'

'I've forgiven her, you can tell her. She's a good girl, but she's a good- time girl, and I should have expected what she did to me. I'm grateful to her for making the break, because I wonder now where my idea that I could live exclusively with her would have got us. It was very silly.'

'She'll be very happy when she learns you took it like that when you saw she had no alternative. It was high time she left you, my dear. The rogue of a dealer she'd offered to sell her furniture to, had been to see her creditors to ask how much she owed them. They'd got cold feet and were planning to sell everything in another two days.'

'And now, it's all paid back?'

'Almost.'

'And who provided the money?'

'Count de N. Listen, dear, there are men who were put in this would for paying up. To cut a long story short, he came up with twenty thousand francs ?but he's got what he wanted. He knows Marguerite doesn't love him, but that doesn't prevent him being very nice to her. You saw for yourself that he's bought back her horses and redeemed her jewels, and he gives her as much money as the Duke used to. If she's prepared to settle for a quiet life, then this is one man who'll stay with her for a long time. '

'And what does she do with herself? Does she stay in Paris all the time?'

'She's never once wanted to go back to Bougival since the day you left. It was me that went down to fetch all her things, and yours too: I've made a bundle of them that you can send round for. It's all there except for a little pocketbook with your monogram on it. Marguerite wanted to have it, and she's got it with her in the apartment. If you want it particularly, I could ask for it back.'

'She can keep it, ' I stammered, for I could feel tears welling up from my heart into my eyes at the memory of the village where I had been so happy, and at the thought that Marguerite should want to keep something that had been mine and reminded her of me.

If she had come into the room at that moment, all my plans for revenge would have collapsed, and I would have fallen at her feet.

'Mind you, ' Prudence went on, 'I've never seen her the way she is at the minute. She hardly sleeps at all, goes to every ball, eats late suppers and even has too much to drink. Just recently, after a supper party, she was in bed for a week. And when the doctor allowed her up, she started where she'd left off, though she knows it could kill her. Are you going to see her?'

'What's the point? It was you I came to see, because you've always been extremely nice to me, and I knew you before I met Marguerite. It's you I have to thank for having been her lover, just as it's you I must thank for not being her lover any more. Am I right?'

'Well, yes. I did everything I could to make her give you up, and I do believe that, in time, you won't think too badly of me.'

'I owe you a double debt of gratitude, ' I added, getting to my feet, 'because I was getting sick of her when I saw how seriously she took everything I said: '

'Are you going?'

'Yes.'

I had heard enough.

'When shall we see you again?'

'Soon. Goodbye.'

'Goodbye.'

Prudence saw me to the door, and I returned to my apartment with tears of rage in me eyes and a thirst for revenge in my heart.

So Marguerite was really a whore like the rest of them. So this fathomless love she felt for me had not held out for long against her wish to revert to her old life, and her need to have a carriage and indulge her taste for orgies.

This is what I kept telling myself when I could not sleep, whereas, if I had thought about it as coolly as I made out, I would have seen Marguerite's new, wild behaviour as her hope of silencing persistent thoughts and burying recurring memories.

But, alas, I was ruled by sour resentments, and thought only of finding a way of tormenting the poor creature.

Oh, how small, how vile is man when one of his petty passions is wounded!

Olympe, the girl I had seen with Marguerite, was, if not a close friend, then at least the friend she had seen most of since returning to Paris. She was to throw a ball and, since I assumed Marguerite would be there, I set about getting myself an invitation, and got one.

When I arrived, overflowing with painful emotions, the ball was already in full swing. People were dancing, there was a great deal of shouting and, during one of the quadrilles, I saw Marguerite dancing with Count de N who looked inordinately proud to be showing her off, as though he were declaring to the assembled company:

'This woman belongs to me!'

I went and leaned against the mantelpiece, just across from Marguerite, and watched her dance. She grew flustered almost the moment she noticed me. I indicated that I had seen her, and acknowledged her perfunctorily with a wave of the hand and a look of recognition.

When I thought that, after the ball, she would be leaving, not with me, but with that wealthy oaf, when I pictured what would very likely happen after they got back to her apartment, the blood rushed to my face and I felt a need to upset the course of true love.

When the quadrille was over, I went over and said good evening to the hostess who, for the benefit of her guests, was displaying a dazzling pair of shoulders and much of her magnificent breasts.

She was a beautiful girl, more beautiful, in terms of her figure, than Marguerite. This was brought home to me even more forcibly by certain glances which Marguerite cast towards Olympe as I was speaking to her. The man who became this woman's lover could be every bit as pleased with himself as Monsieur de N, and she was beautiful enough to start a passion the equal of the one which Marguerite had inspired in
me.

At that time, she had no lover. It would not be difficult to remedy that. The trick was having enough gold to fling about in order go get oneself noticed.

My mind was made up. This woman would be my mistress.

I took the first steps in my initiation by dancing with Olympe.

Half an hour later, Marguerite, pale as death, put on her fur-lined cape and left the ball.

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