La Dame aux camélias (Camille)

Chapter 26

Chinese

WHAT ensued after that fatal night, you know as well as I do. But what you do not know, what you cannot suspect, is what I went through after the moment we parted.

I had heard that your father had taken you away, but felt sure that you would not be able to go on keeping your distance for long, and the day I ran into you on the Champs-Elysees, I was stunned but not really surprised.

And so began the sequence of days, each with some new insult from you which I suffered almost gladly. For not only was each indignity proof that you still loved me: I also felt that the more you persecuted me, the nobler I should appear in your eyes on the day you finally learned the truth.

Do not be surprised that I should have borne my cross gladly, Armand, for the love you felt for me had aroused noble inclinations in my heart.

But I did not have such strength of purpose at the outset.

Between the consummation of the sacrifice I had made for you and your return, a fairly long time went by when I needed to fall back on physical means as a way of preserving my sanity and of drowning my unhappiness in the life to which I had reverted. I believe Prudence told you how I never missed a party or a ball or an orgy.

My hope was that I should kill myself quickly with my excesses, and I think that this hope will not now be long in being realized. Of necessity, my health deteriorated steadily, and the day I sent Madame Duvernoy to beg for your mercy, I was close to collapse in both body and soul.

I will not remind you, Armand, of the way you repaid me the last time I proved my love to you, nor of the indignity by which you made Paris unbearable for a woman who, near to dying, could not resist your voice when you asked her for one night of love, and who, taking leave of her senses, believed for an instant that she could build a bridge between what had been and what was now. It was your privilege, Armand, to act as you did: the rate for one of my nights was not always so high!

So I left it all behind me! Olympe replaced me as Monsieur N's mistress and took it on herself, so I hear, to explain my reasons for leaving him. Count de G was in London. He is one of those men who attach just enough importance to running after girls of my sort for it to be a pleasant diversion, and thus remain on friendly terms with the women they have had: they never hate them, because they have never been jealous. He is one of those noble Lords who show us one side of their feelings but both ends of their wallets. My first thought was of him. I travelled over to join him. He gave me a marvellous welcome, but he was the lover of a society lady there, and was afraid of compromising himself by being seen with me. He introduced me to his friends, who organized a supper party for me, after which one of them took me home with him.

What did you expect me to do, my dear? Kill myself? To do so would have meant burdening your life, which must be a happy one, with pointless self-recriminations. And in any case, what is the sense of killing yourself when you are already so close to dying?

I turned into a body without a soul, a thing without thought. I continued in this mechanical way for some time, then came back to Paris and made enquiries about you. It was at this point that I learned that you had gone away on a long journey. There was nothing now to save me. My life once more became what it used to be two years before I met you. I tried to get back on terms with the Duke, but I had wounded him too deeply, and old men are short on patience, no doubt because they are aware that they are not going to live forever. My illness grew on me day by day. I had no colour, I felt desolate, I became thinner all the time. Men who buy love always inspect the goods before taking delivery of them. In Paris, there were many women whose health was better, and who had better figures than mine. I began to be overlooked. So much for the past, up to yesterday.

I am now very ill. I have written to the Duke asking for money, for I have none, and my creditors have returned brandishing their accounts with merciless persistence. Will the Duke give me an answer? Armand, why are you not here in Paris? You would come to see me and your visits would be a comfort.

20 December

The weather is dreadful: it's snowing and I am here alone. For the last three days, a fever has laid me so low that I have been unable to write to you. Nothing has changed, my dear. Each day I have vague hopes of a letter from you, but it does not come and probably never will. Only men are strong enough to be unforgiving. The Duke has not replied.

Prudence has started up her visits to the pawn-shops again.

I cough blood all the time. Oh! how you would grieve if you could see me now! You are so lucky to be where the sun is warm and not to have to face, as I do, an icy winter which lies heavy on your chest. Today, I got up for a while and, from behind the curtains at my window, I watched the bustle of life in Paris which I do believe I have put behind me once and for all. A few faces I knew appeared in the street: they passed quickly, cheerfully, without a care. Not one looked up at my window. However, a few young men have called and left their names. I was ill once before and you, who did not know me and had got nothing from me except a pert answer the day I first set eyes on you, you came to ask for news of me every morning. And now I am ill again. We spent six months together. I felt as much love for you as a woman's heart can contain and give, and now you are far away, you curse me and there is no word of comfort from you. But it was chance alone that made you desert me, I am sure, for if you were here in Paris, you would not leave my bedside nor my room.

25 December

My doctor has forbidden me to write every day. He is right, for remembering only makes the fever worse. But yesterday I received a letter which did me good ?more for the sentiments behind it than for any material help it brought me. So I am able to write to you today. The letter was from your father and this is what it said:

"Madame, I have this moment learned that you are ill. If I were in Paris, I should call myself to ask after you, and if my son were here with me, I should send him to find out how you are. But I cannot leave C, and Armand is six or seven hundred leagues away. Allow me therefore simply to say, Madame, how grieved I am by your illness, and please believe that I hope most sincerely for your prompt recovery.

One of my closest friends, Monsieur H, will call on you. He has been entrusted by me with an errand the result of which I await with impatience. Please receive him, and oblige

Your humble servant?

This is the letter I have received. Your father is a man of noble heart: love him well, my dear, for there are few men in the world who deserve as much to be loved. This note, signed by him in full, has done me more good than all the prescriptions dispensed by my learned doctor.

Monsieur H came this morning. He seemed terribly embarrassed by the delicate mission which Monsieur Duval had entrusted to him. He simply came to hand over a thousand ecus from your father. At first, I would not take the money, but Monsieur H said that by refusing I should offend Monsieur Duval, who had authorized him to give me this sum in the first instance and to supplement it with anything further I might need. I accepted his good offices which, coming from your father, cannot be regarded as charity. If I am dead when you return, show your father what I have just written about him, and tell him that as she penned these lines, the poor creature to whom he was kind enough to write this comforting letter, wept tears of gratitude and said a prayer for him.

4 January

I have just come through a succession of racking days. I never knew how much pain our bodies can give us. Oh! my past life! I am now paying for it twice over!

I have had someone sitting with me each night. I could not breathe. A wandering mind and bouts of coughing share what remains of my sorry existence.

My dining-room is crammed full of sweets and presents of all kinds which friends have brought me. Among these people, there are no doubt some who hope that I shall be their mistress later on. If they could only see what illness has reduced me to, they would run away in horror.

Prudence is using the presents I have been getting as New Year gifts to tradesmen.

It has turned frosty, and the doctor has said that I can go out in a few days if the fine weather continues.

8 January

Yesterday, I went out for a drive in my carriage. The weather was splendid. There were crowds of people out on the Champs-Elysees. It seemed like the first smile of spring. Everywhere around me there was a carnival atmosphere. I had never before suspected that the sun's rays could contain all the joy, sweetness and consolation that I found in them yesterday.

I ran into almost all the people I know. They were as high-spirited as ever, and just as busily going about their pleasures. So many happy people, and so unaware that they are happy! Olympe drove by in an elegant carriage which Monsieur de N has given her. She tried to cut me with a look. She has no idea how far removed I have grown from such futilities. A nice boy I have known for ages asked me if I would have supper with him and a friend of his who, he said, wanted to meet me.

I gave him a sad smile and held out my hand, which was burning with fever.

I have never seen such surprise on a human face.

I got back at four o'clock and sat down to dinner with fairly good appetite.

The drive out has done me good.

What if I were to get well again!

How strongly the sight of the lives and happiness of others renews the will to live of those who, only the day before, alone with their souls in the darkness of the sickroom, wanted nothing better than to die soon!

10 January

My hopes of recovery were an illusion. Here I am once more confined to my bed, my body swathed in burning poultices. Go out now and try hawking this body of yours which used to fetch such a pretty price, and see what you would get for it today!

We must have committed very wiched deeds before we were born, or else we are to enjoy very great felicity after we are dead, for God to allow us to know in this life all the agony of atonement and all the pain of our time of trial.

12 January

I am still ill.

Count de N sent me money yesterday, but I did not take it. I want nothing from that man. He is the reason why you are not with me now.

Oh! happy days at Bougival! where are you now?

If I get out of this bedroom alive, it will be to go on a pilgrimage to the house where we lived together. But the next time I leave here, I shall be
dead.

Who knows if I shall write to you tomorrow?

25 January

For eleven nights now, I have not slept, I have not been able to breathe, and I have thought that I was about to die at any moment. The doctor has left instructions that I was not to be permitted to touch a pen. Still, Julie Duprat who sits up with me, has allowed me to write you these few lines. Will you not return, then, before I die? Is everything between us finished forever? I have a feeling that if you did come back, I should get better. But what would be the point of getting better?

28 January

This morning, I was awakened by a loud commotion. Julie, who was sleeping in my room, rushed into the dining room. I heard men's voices, and hers battling vainly against them. She came back in tears.

They had come to repossess their goods. I told her to let what they call justice be done. The bailiff came into my room, and he kept his hat on his head the whole time. He opened the drawers, made a note of everything he saw, and did not appear to notice that there was a woman dying in the bed which the charity of the law fortunately lets me keep.

As he was going he at least agreed to inform me that I had nine days in which to appeal, but he has left a watchman here! God, what is to become of me? This scene has made me more ill than ever. Prudence wanted to ask your father's friend for money, but I said no.

I received your letter this morning. Oh, how I needed it to come! Will my reply reach you in time? Will you ever see me again? This is a happy day which has helped me forget the days which I have spent these last six weeks. It seems to me that I am a little better, in spite of the miserable feeling which was my mood when I wrote you my reply.

After all, we cannot be unhappy all the time.

And then I fall to thinking that perhaps I won't die, that you will come back, that I shall see the spring once more, that you love me still, and that we shall begin the life we had last year all over again?

But this is madness! It is as much as I can do to hold the pen which writes to you of these wild longings of my heart.

Whatever the outcome, I loved you very much, Armand, and I should have already been dead a long time if I had not had the memory of my love to sustain me, and a kind of vague hope of seeing you by my side once more.

4 February

Count de G is back. His mistress has been unfaithful to him. His spirits are very low, for he loved her very much. He came and told me the whole story. The poor man's affairs are in a bad way, though this did not prevent him from paying off my bailiff and dismissing the watchman.

I talked to him about you, and he has promised to talk to you about me. It's strange but, as I spoke, I completely forgot that I used to be his mistress once and, no less strangely, he tried to make me forget too! He is a decent sort.

Yesterday, the Duke sent round to enquire after me, and he came himself this morning. I cannot think what can keep the old man going. He sat with me for three hours, and did not say much above a score of words. Two great tears came to his eyes when he saw how pale I was. No doubt the memory of his daughter's death made him cry so.

He will have seen her die twice. His back is bent, his head is thrust forward and downward, his mouth is slack and his eyes are dull. The double weight of age and grief bears down upon his tired body. He did not say one word of reproach. It was as though he found some secret satisfaction in observing what ravages disease has produced in me. He seemed proud to be still standing, whereas I, who am still young, have been laid low by my sufferings.

The bad weather has returned. No one comes to see me now. Julie sits up with me as often as she can. I cannot give Prudence as much money as I used to, and she has begun saying that she has business to attend to as an excuse for staying away.

Now that I am near to death ?in spite of what the doctors say, for I have several, which only shows how the disease is gaining on me ?I am almost sorry I listened to your father. If I had known that I would have taken just one year out of your future, I would not have resisted my longing to spend that year with you, and then, at least, I should have died holding the hand of a friend. Yet it is clear that had we spent that year together, I should not have died so soon.

Let Thy will be done!

5 February

Oh, come to me, Armand, for I suffer torments! God, I am about to die! Yesterday, I was so low that I felt I wanted to be somewhere other than here for the evening, which promised to be as long as the one before, The Duke had been in the morning. I have a feeling that the sight of this old man, whom death has overlooked, brings my own death that much nearer.

Although I was burning with fever, I was dressed and taken to the Vaudeville. Julie had rouged my cheeks, for otherwise I should have looked like a corpse. I took my place in the box where I gave you our first rendezvous. I kept my eyes fixed the whole time on the seat in the stalls where you sat that day: yesterday, it was occupied by some boorish man who laughed loudly at all the stupid things the actors said. I was brought home half dead and spat blood all night. Today I cannot speak and can hardly move my arms. God! God! I am going to die! I was expecting it, but I cannot reconcile myself to the thought that my greatest sufferings are still to come, and if?

After this word, the few letters which Marguerite had tried to form were illegible, and the story had been taken up by Julie Duprat.

18 February

Monsieur Armand,

Since the day Marguerite insisted on going to the theatre, she has grown steadily worse. Her voice went completely, and then she lost the use of her limbs. What our poor friend has to bear is impossible to describe. I am not used to coping with such suffering, and I go in constant fear.

Oh, how I wish you were here with us! She is delirious for most of the time, but whether her mind is wandering or lucid, your name is the one which she says when she manages to say anything at all.

The doctor has told me that she does not have much longer to live. Since she has been so desperately ill, the old Duke has not been back.

He told the doctor that seeing her like this was too much for him.

Madame Duvernoy has not behaved very well. She thought she would still be able to go on getting money out of Marguerite, at whose expense she has been living on a more or less permanent basis, and she took on obligations which she cannot meet. Seeing that her neighbour is no further use to her, she does not even come to see her any more. Everyone has deserted her. Monsieur de G, harried by his debts, has been forced to return to London. Before going, he sent us money. He has done all he could, but the men have been back with repossession orders, and the creditors are only waiting for her to die before selling her up.

I wanted to use the last of my own money to stop her things being taken back, but the bailiff told me there was no point, for he had other orders to serve on her. Since she is going to die, it is better to let everything go than to try and save it for her family, given that she does not want to see any of them and, in any case, they never cared for her. You can have no idea of the gilded poverty in which the poor girl lies dying. Yesterday, we had no money at all. Plate, jewels, Indian shawls-everything has been pawned and the rest has been sold or seized. Marguerite is still aware of what is happening around her, and she suffers in body, mind and heart. Great tears run down her cheeks which are now so thin and pale that, if you saw her now, you would not recognize the face of the woman you once loved so much. She made me promise to write to you when she was no longer able to do so herself, and she is watching as I write this. She turns her eyes in my direction, but she cannot see me, for her sight is already dimmed by approaching death. And yet she smiles, and all her thoughts, all her soul, are for you, I am sure.

Each time the door opens, her eyes light up, for each time she believes that you will walk in. Then, when she sees that it is not you, her face reverts to its expression of suffering, breaks into a cold sweat and her cheeks turn crimson.

19 February, midnight

Oh, poor Monsieur Armand! What a sad day today has been! This morning, Marguerite could not get her breath. The doctor bled her, and her voice came back a little. The doctor advised her to see a priest. She said she would, and he himself went off to find one at the Church of Saint Roch.

Meanwhile, Marguerite called me close to her bedside, asked me to open her wardrobe, pointed out a lace cap and a long shift, also richly decked with lace, and then said in a weakened voice:

"I shall die after I have made my confession. When it's over, you are to dress me in these things. It is the whim of a dying woman."

Then, weeping, she kissed me and added:

"I can speak, but I can't get my breath when I do. I can't breathe! Give me air!"

I burst into tears and opened the window. A few moments later, the priest walked in.

I went to greet him.

When he realized in whose apartment he was, he seemed afraid of the reception he might get.

"Come in, father, there's nothing to fear," I said.

He stayed no time in the room where Marguerite lay so ill, and when he emerged, he said:

"She has lived a sinful life, but she will die a Christian death."

A few moments later, he returned with an altar-boy carrying a crucifix, and a sacristan who walked before them ringing a bell to announce that the Lord was coming to the house of the dying woman.

All three entered the bedroom which, in times gone by, had echoed with so many extravagant voices, and was now nothing less than a holy tabernacle.

I fell to my knees. I cannot say how long the effect of these proceedings on me will last, but I do not believe that any human thing will ever produce such an effect on me again until I myself reach the same pass.

The priest took the holy oils, anointed the dying woman's feet, hands and brow, read a short prayer, and Marguerite was ready for heaven, where she is surely bound if God has looked down on the tribulations of her life and the saintly character of her death.

Since that moment, she has not spoken or stirred. There were a score of times when I would have thought she was dead, had I not heard her laboured breathing.

20 February, 5 o'clock in the afternoon

It is all over.

Marguerite began her mortal agony last night, around two o'clock. No martyr ever suffered such torment, to judge by the screams she uttered. Two or three times, she sat bolt upright in her bed, as though she would snatch at the life which was winging its way back to God.

And two or three times she said your name. Then everything went quiet, and she slumped back on the bed exhausted. Silent tears welled up in her eyes, and she died.

I went close to her, called her name and, when she did not answer, I closed her eyes and kissed her on the forehead.

Poor, dear Marguerite! How I wished I had been a holy woman so that my kiss might commend your soul to God!

Then I dressed her as she had asked. I went to fetch a priest at Saint-Roch. I lit two candies for her, and stayed in the church for an hour to pray.

I gave money of hers to some poor people there.

I am not well versed in religion, but I believe that the good Lord will acknowledge that my tears were genuine, my prayers fervent and my charity sincere, and He will have pity on one who died young and beautiful, yet had only me to close her eyes and lay her in her grave.

22 February

The funeral was today. Many of Marguerite's women friends came to the church. A few wept honest tears. When the cortege set off for Montmartre, only two men followed the hearse: Count de G, who had returned specially from London, and the Duke, who walked with the aid of two of his footmen.

I am writing to tell you of these happenings from Marguerite's apartment, with tears in my eyes, by the light of the lamp which burns mournfully and with my dinner untouched, as you might imagine, though Nanine had it sent up for me, for I have not eaten in more than twenty-four hours.

Life moves on and will not allow me to keep these distressing pictures clear in my mind for long, for my life is no more mine than Marguerite's was hers. Which is why I am writing down all these things here in the place where they happened, for I fear that if any length of time were to elapse between what has occurred and your return, I should not be able to give you an account of it in all its sorry detail.'

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