La Dame aux camélias (Camille)

Chapter 24


IT was something, but it was not enough. I knew what power I had over her, and took cowardly advantage of it.

When I reflect that she is dead now, I wonder if God will ever forgive me for the hurt I caused her.

After supper, which was very rowdy, people began to gamble.

I sat next to Olympe, and bet my money so boldly that she could hardly fail to notice. In a trice, I won a hundred and fifty or two hundred louis which I spread out in front of me; she stared at them with eager eyes.

I was the only person there who was not totally absorbed by the play, and I alone paid her any attention. For the rest of the night, I went on winning, and it was I who gave her money to gamble with, for she had lost everything she had on the table in front of her, and most probably all the money she had in the house.

People started to leave at five in the morning.

I had won three hundred louis.

All the gamblers had gone downstairs. Only I had stayed behind. No one noticed, for none of the other gentlemen were friends of mine.

Olympe herself was lighting them down the staircase, and I was about to go down like everyone else, when, turning back to her, I said:

'I must speak to you.'

'Tomorrow, ' she said.

'No. Now.'

'What is it you want to say?'

'You'll see.'

And I went back into her apartment.

'You lost, ' I said.


'Everything you had here?'

She hesitated.

'Speak frankly.'

'Oh very well, you're right.'

'I won three hundred louis. They're yours, if you let me stay.'

And, as I spoke, I tossed the gold on to the table.

'Why the offer?'

'Because I love you, dammit!'

'No so. Because you're in love with Marguerite and want to have your revenge by becoming my lover. You can't fool a woman like me, you know. Unfortunately, I'm still too young and too beautiful to accept the role you propose.'

'So you refuse?'


'Would you rather have me for love than money? If so, I should be the one to refuse. Think, my dear Olympe. If I'd sent somebody or other along to offer you these same three hundred louis on my behalf and on the same terms that I have set out, you would have accepted. I preferred to deal with you directly. Say yes, and don't look for motives behind what I'm doing. Keep telling yourself that you're beautiful, that there's nothing surprising in the fact that I'm in love with you.'

Marguerite was a kept woman like Olympe, and yet the first time I saw her, I would never have dared say to her what I had just said to this woman. The difference was that I loved Marguerite, and had sensed instincts in her which were lacking in this other creature who, for all her very great beauty, even as I put the arrangement to her and prepared to agree terms, sickened me.

In the end she consented, of course, and when I walked out of her apartment at noon, I was her lover. But I slipped from her bed carrying away no memory of the caresses and loving words which she had felt obliged to lavish on me in exchange for the six thousand francs which I left for her.

And yet men had ruined themselves for that woman.

Starting from that day, I subjected Marguerite to constant persecution. Olympe and she stopped seeing each other: you can easily understand why. I gave my new mistress a carriage and jewels, I gambled and, in a word, committed all the follies which a man in love with a woman like Olympe normally commits. Rumours of my new passion spread at once.

Even Prudence was taken in by them and ended up believing that I had completely forgotten Marguerite. Marguerite, either because she guessed the motive which drove me or because she was deceived like everyone else, responded with great dignity to the slights I inflicted on her every day. Yet she appeared to be ill, for everywhere I met her I found her looking paler and paler and increasingly sad. My love for her, exalted to the point where it felt as though it had turned to hate, revelled in the spectacle of her daily sufferings. Several times, in situations where I behaved with unspeakable cruelty, Marguerite looked at me with such imploring eyes that I reddened at the role I had chosen to play, and came near to asking for her forgiveness.

But my repentance never lasted longer than a flash of lightning. Besides, Olympe, who in the end had set aside all thought of self-respect and realized that by hurting Marguerite she could get anything she wanted out of me, constantly set me against her and, whenever she had the chance, insulted her with the relentless cowardice of a woman who has the backing of a man.

Finally, Marguerite stopped going either to the ball or the theatre for fear of meeting Olympe and me. Then the direct insults were replaced by anonymous letters: there was nothing too shameful which I did not urge my mistress to put about nor too despicable which I did not myself spread concerning Marguerite.

I must have taken leave of my senses to allow affairs to come to such a pass. I was like a man who has got fighting drunk and falls into an uncontrollable rage in which his hand is quite capable of committing a crime without involving his mind. In the midst of it all, I went through torment. The way Marguerite reacted to all my attacks? with a calmness that was as free of scorn as her dignity was of contempt? made her my superior even in my eyes, but served only to provoke me further.

One evening, Olympe had gone out somewhere and met Marguerite who, on this occasion, did not spare the stupid girl who insulted her, and things reached the point where Olympe was forced to back down. She came back seething. Marguerite, who had fainted, had to be carried home.

As soon as she came in, Olympe told me what had happened. She said that when Marguerite had seen that she was by herself, she had wanted revenge because Olympe was my mistress. She said that I had to write a letter saying that, whether I was with her or not, the woman I loved was to be respected.

I have no need to tell you that I agreed. I put everything bitter, shameful and cruel I could think of into that missive which I sent to her home address that same day.

This time, the cut went too deep for the unhappy girl to be able to bear it in silence.

I was confident that a reply would be delivered. Accordingly, I was determined not to go out all that day.

Around two o'clock, there was a ring at the door and Prudence was shown in.

I tried to appear unconcerned as I asked her to what I owed her visit. But that day Madame Duvernoy was in no mood for laughter and, sounding terribly upset, she pointed out that since my return, that is for the last three weeks or so, I had not missed an opportunity to hurt Marguerite. It was making her ill. The scene the night before, and the letter I'd sent that morning, had forced her to take to her bed.

And so, without framing a single reproach, Marguerite had sent to ask for mercy, informing me that she no longer had either the emotional nor physical strength to endure what I was doing to her.

'If Mademoiselle Gautier, ' I told Prudence, 'wishes to close her door to me, then she is perfectly entitled to do so. But that she should insult a woman I love on the ground that the woman is my mistress, is something which I shall never tolerate.'

'My dear, ' said Prudence, 'you're being ruled by the influence of a heartless, thoughtless, common girl. You love her, it's true, but that's no reason for tormenting a woman who can't defend herself.'

'Let Mademoiselle Gautier send her Count de N to me and the game will be even.'

'You know very well she'll never do that. So let her be, dear Armand. If you saw her, you'd be ashamed of the way you're behaving towards her. She's got no colour, and she's coughing. She's not long for this world now.'

Prudence held out her hand to me and added:

'Come and see her. A visit from you will make her very happy.'

'I have no wish to meet Monsieur de N.'

'Monsieur de N is never there. She can't stand him.'

'If Marguerite really wants to see me, she knows where I live. She can come here. But I shall never set foot in the rue d'Antin.'

'And you'd be nice to her?'

'I'd behave perfectly.'

'Well, I'm sure she'll come.'

'Let her.'

'Are you going out today?'

'I shall be home all evening.'

'I'll go and tell her.'

Prudence left.

I did not even bother to write and let Olympe know that I should not be going to see her. I behaved pretty much as I liked towards her. I hardly spent one night a week with her now. She found consolation with, I believe, an actor from one or other of the Boulevard theatres.

I went out for dinner and came back almost immediately. I had fires lit in every room and told Joseph he would not be needed.

I could not give you any sort of account of the various thoughts which troubled my mind during the hour I waited. But when I heard the doorbell, at around nine o'clock, they all came together in one emotion so powerful that, as I went to open the door, I was obliged to lean against the wall to prevent myself falling.

Fortunately, the hallway was only half-lit, so that the change in my features was less noticeable.

Marguerite came in.

She was dressed entirely in black and wore a veil. I could only just make out her face beneath the lace.

She walked on into the drawing- room and lifted her veil.

She was as pale as marble.

'Here I am, Armand, ' she said. 'You wanted to see me. I came.'

And, lowering her head which she took in both hands, she burst into tears.

I went up to her.

'What is it?' I said falteringly.

She pressed my hand without replying, for the tears still dimmed her voice. But a few moments later, having regained something of her composure, she said:

'You have hurt me a great deal, Armand, and I never did anything to you.'

'Never did anything?' I replied, with a bitter smile.

'Nothing, except what circumstances forced me to do to you.'

I do not know if you have ever experienced in your life, or ever will, what I went through as I looked at Marguerite.

The last time she had come to my apartment, she had sat in the same chair where she was now sitting. But since those days, she had been another man's mistress; other kisses than mine had brushed those lips towards which my own were now involuntarily drawn. And yet I felt that I loved her no less, and perhaps even more, than I had ever loved her.

However, it was difficult for me to broach the subject which had brought her. Most likely Marguerite understood this, for she went on:

'My coming here will be tiresome for you, Armand, for I have two requests to make: your forgiveness for what I said to Mademoiselle Olympe yesterday, and your mercy for what you may still be thinking of doing to me. Whether you wanted to or not, you have hurt me so much since your return that I should not now be able to stand a quarter of the emotions which I have borne up to this morning. You will have pity on me, won't you? And you will remember that there are nobler things for a good man to do than to take his revenge against a woman as ill and as wretched as I am. Come. Take my hand. I am feverish: I left my bed to come here to ask, not for your friendship, but for your indifference.'

As she asked, I took Marguerite's hand. It was hot, and the poor woman was shivering beneath her velvet cloak.

I rolled the armchair in which she was sitting nearer the fire.

'Do you imagine that I didn't suffer, ' I resumed, 'that night when, after waiting for you in the country, I came looking for you in Paris where all I found was that letter which almost drove me out of my mind?

'How could you have deceived me, Marguerite? I loved you so much!'

'Let's not speak of that, Armand, I did not come here to speak of that. I wanted to see you other than as an enemy, that's all, and I wanted to hold your hand once more. You have a young, pretty mistress whom you love, so they say be happy with her and forget me.'

'And what of you? I suppose you're happy?'

'Have I the face of a happy woman, Armand? Don't mock my sorrows, for you should know their cause and extent better than anyone.'

'It was entirely up to you never to be unhappy, if, that is, you are as unhappy as you say.'

'No, my friend, circumstances were too strong for my will. I did not follow my immoral instincts as you seem to be saying, but obeyed a solemn injunction and yielded to arguments which, when some day you know what they were, will make you forgive me.'

'Why not tell me now what these arguments are?'

'Because they would not bring us together again, for we can never be together again, and because they might alienate you from those from whom you must not be alienated.'

'Who are these people?'

'I cannot tell you.'

'Then you're lying.'

Marguerite stood up and walked to the door.

I could not stand by and watch such silent, expressive grief without being moved by it, when my mind's eye I compared this white-faced, weeping woman with the high-spirited girl who had laughed at me at the Opera-Comique.

'You shall not go, ' I said, thrusting myself against the door.

'Why not?'

'Because in spite of all you've done to me, I still love you and want to keep you here.'

'So that you can throw me out tomorrow, is that it? No, it's out of the question! Our destinies are separate, let's not try to unite them, for them you might despise me, whereas now you have no choice but hate.'

'No, Marguerite, ' I exclaimed, feeling all my love, all my desires awaken with her nearness, 'No, I shall forget all that is past, and we will be happy, as we promised we would.'

Marguerite shook her head uncertainly, then said:

'Am I not your slave, your dog? Do with me what you will. Take me, I am yours.'

And removing her coat and her hat which she flung on to the sofa, she began feverishly unloosing the bodice of her dress, for, her condition deterioriating suddenly, as often happened in her illness, and with the blood rushing from her heart to her head, she was having difficulty breathing.

There followed a bout of dry, hoarse coughing.

'Have my coachman told, ' she went on, 'to drive my carriage home.'

I went down myself to dismiss the man.

When I returned, Marguerite was lying in front of the fire, and her teeth were chattering with cold.

I took her in my arms, undressed her where she lay without stirring, and carried her icy body to my bed.

Then I sat by her side and tried to warm her with my caresses. She did not speak, but she smiled at me.

Oh! How strange was the night that followed! The whole of Marguerite's life seemed to be concentrated in the kisses she lavished on me. I loved her so intensely that, in the transports of my loving frenzy, I wondered whether I should not kill her so that she would never belong to anyone else.

A month of such loving, body and soul, would be enough to bury most people.

Day found us both awake.

Marguerite was ghastly pale. She did not utter a word. From time to time, large tears flowed from her eyes and halted on her cheeks where they glistened like diamonds. Her weary arms opened now and then to hold me fast to her, and then fell back lifelessly on to the bed.

For a moment, I thought I could forget everything that had happened since the moment I had left Bougival, and I said to Marguerite:

'Would you like us to go away, to leave Paris?'

'No, no!' she said, near to panic, 'we should be too wretched. There's nothing I can do now to make you happy, but as long as I have breath in my body, I will be the slave of your every whim. Whatever time of day or night you want me, come to me: I shall be yours. But you mustn't go on trying to link your future with mine. You'd only be too unhappy, and you would make me very wretched.

'I'll keep my looks for a little while longer. Make the most of them, but don't ask any more of me.'

When she had gone, I felt frightened by the loneliness to which she had abandoned me. Two hours after her departure, I was still sitting on the bed she had just left, staring at the pillow which bore the imprint of her head, and wondering what should become of me, torn as I was between love and jealousy.

At five o'clock, without having any clear idea of what I would do when I got there, I went round to the rue d'Antin.

It was Nanine who opened the door.

'Madame cannot see you now, ' she said, with some embarrassment.

'Why not?'

'Because Count de N is with her, and he doesn't want me to let anyone in.'

'Oh, of course, ' I stammered, 'I'd forgotten.'

I returned home like a man drunk, and do you know what I did in that moment of jealous frenzy which lasted only long enough for the disgraceful action which I was about to commit, can you guess what I did? I told myself that this woman was making a fool of me, I pictured her locked in inviolable intimacies with the Count, repeating to him the same words she had said to me that night, and, taking a five hundred franc note, I sent it to her with this message:

'You left so quickly this morning that I forgot to pay you. The enclosed is your rate for a night.'

Then, when the letter had gone, I went out as though to escape from the instant remorse which followed this unspeakable deed.

I called on Olympe and I found her trying on dresses. When we were alone, she sang obscene songs for my amusement.

She was the archetypal courtesan who has neither shame nor heart nor wit? or at least she appeared so to me, for perhaps another man had shared with her the idyll I had shared with Marguerite.

She asked me for money. I gave it her. Then, free to go, I went home.

Marguerite had not sent a reply.

There is no point in my telling you in what state of agitation I spent the whole of the following day.

At half past six, a messenger brought an envelope containing my letter and the five hundred franc note, but nothing else.

'Who gave you this?' I said to the man.

'A lady who was leaving on the Boulogne mail coach with her maid. She gave me orders not to bring it until the coach was clear of the depot.'

I ran all the way to Marguerite's apartment.

'Madame left for England today at six o'clock, ' said the porter in answer to my question.

There was nothing now to keep me in Paris, neither love nor hate. I was exhausted by the turmoil of these events. One of my friends was about to set off on a tour of the Middle East. I went to see my father and said I wished to go with him. My father gave me bills of exchange and letters of introduction, and a week or ten days later I boarded ship at Marseilles.

It was at Alexandria, through an Embassy attache whom I had occasionally seen at Marguerite's, that I learnt about the poor girl's illness.

It was then that I sent her the letter to which she wrote the reply you have read for yourself. I got it when I reached Toulon.

I set out immediately and you know the rest.

All that remains now is for you to read the papers which Julie Duprat kept for me. They are the necessary complement of the story I have just told you.




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