The Lady of the Camellias CHAPTER I

It is my opinion that you cannot create a convincing character until you have made a broad study of human nature, just as you cannot speak a foreign language until you have studied it thoroughly.

Not having reached an age at which I consider myself qualified to invent a character, I content myself with simply describing one.

I therefore ask the reader to accept the truth of this story—all of whose characters, except for its heroine, are still living.

I should add that, in Paris, there are eyewitnesses to most of the facts I gather here, who would be able to confirm them should my own testimony be deemed insufficient. By a particular circumstance, I am the only one who can relate them all, as it was only I who was acquainted with the final details without which it would have been impossible to write an account that was both interesting and complete.

To return to my subject, let me tell you how these details came to my attention. On the twelfth day of the month of March, 1847, I saw in the rue Laffitte a large yellow sign announcing a sale of furniture and valuable curios. This sale was taking place after a death. The poster did not give the name of the deceased, but the sale was to take place on the rue d’Antin, No. 9, on the sixteenth, from noon to five o’clock.

Additionally, the sign specified, the apartment and its furnishings could be visited on the thirteenth and fourteenth.

I have always been fond of curios. I vowed not to miss this occasion, if only to look, not to buy.

The next day I presented myself at the rue d’Antin, No. 9.

It was early, but a good number of visitors were already in the apartment, even female visitors, who, though they were dressed in velvet and wrapped in cashmere shawls, and though they were awaited outside the doors by elegant coupés, gazed with astonishment and even admiration at the luxury that met their eyes.

Later I understood this admiration and astonishment, as, having myself begun to examine the offerings as well, I easily recognized that I was in the apartment of a kept woman. And if there is one thing society women long to see—and society women were on the premises—it is the private life of those Parisian women whose carriages splash theirs every day, who sit, like them and alongside them, in their boxes at the opera and at the Théâtre des Italiens, flaunting the insolent opulence of their beauty, their jewels, and their scandals.

The one in whose apartment I found myself was dead, so now even the most virtuous women could penetrate her bedroom. Death had purified the air surrounding this resplendent cloaca, and besides, the ladies could make excuse, if they needed to, that they had come to the sale without knowing whose home it was. They had seen some posters, and had wanted to check out the promised goods and make their selections ahead of time; nothing could be simpler. But that did not prevent them from seeking, in the midst of these marvels, traces of the life of this courtesan, about which they had, no doubt, heard so many strange accounts.

Unfortunately the mysteries had died with the goddess, and despite their best intentions these ladies were unable to find anything amid the objects on display after her death that hinted at what had been on offer while its tenant still breathed.

Nonetheless, of what remained, plenty was covetable. The furnishings were superb. Furniture of rosewood and marquetry, Sèvres vases and Chinese porcelain, Meissen statuettes, satin, velvet, and lace; nothing was lacking.

As I wandered the apartment I followed the curious noblewomen who had preceded me. They entered a room decorated with Persian wall hangings, and I, too, was about to enter, when the ladies left the room almost as quickly as they had entered it, smiling as if they were ashamed of this new wonder. This only increased my desire to enter. It was the dressing room, decked out with a multitude of toiletry articles, in which the breathtaking prodigality of the dead woman received its fullest expression.

Upon a large table that backed against the wall, its surface three feet wide and six feet long, glittered all the golden treasures of Aucoc and Odiot. It was a magnificent collection; not one of those thousand implements—so necessary to the beauty of a woman such as the one whose rooms we were visiting—was made of any metal other than gold or silver. However, it was clear that this collection could not have been obtained all at once; it had accumulated little by little, and the lover who had begun it was not the lover who had completed it.

Not being someone who can be shocked at the sight of the vanity table of a kept woman, I entertained myself by examining the intricacy of the objects, such as it was, and perceived that all these magnificently engraved utensils were marked with a variety of different monograms and crests.

I surveyed all these objects, each one of which represented a different prostitution of the poor girl, and told myself that God had been merciful to her, as he had not forced her to suffer the ordinary punishment of such a woman; he had permitted her to die in luxury and beauty, before old age set in, that first death of courtesans.

Really, what can be sadder to see than the old age of vice—above all, when it visits a woman? She retains no dignity and inspires no interest. That eternal regret, not of the wrong road taken, but of bad planning and ill-spent money, is one of the saddest things a person can hear. I knew a striking old courtesan who retained nothing of her past but a daughter who was almost as pretty as her mother had been—so her contemporaries said. That poor child, whose mother had never said, “You are my daughter,” except to order her to support her in her old age as she had supported the girl in her childhood—that poor creature was named Louise, and, in obeying her mother, served her without inclination, without passion, and without pleasure, as she would have performed any trade, had anyone thought to teach her one.

The continual sight of depravity, a precocious depravity, fed by continual ill health, had extinguished in the girl the knowledge of right and wrong that God had perhaps planted in her, but that nobody had bothered to nurture.

I will always remember that young girl who walked along the boulevards almost every day at the same time. Her mother always accompanied her, as assiduously as a true mother would have accompanied her true daughter. I was very young then, and ready to accept the easy morality of my times. I remember nonetheless that the sight of this scandalous surveillance filled me with contempt and disgust.

Add to this that no virgin’s face had ever conveyed such a feeling of innocence, such an expression of melancholy suffering. She resembled a statue of Resignation.

One day the face of this girl brightened. In spite of the program of debauchery that her mother had organized for her, it appeared that God had granted the sinner one happiness. And why, after all, would God, who had made her without strength, have left her with no consolation whatever for the painful burden of her life? One day she realized she was pregnant, and everything within her that remained pure and undefiled leapt for joy. The soul has strange refuges. Louise ran to her mother to announce the news that had made her so joyful. It is shameful to say this (however, we do not discuss immorality frivolously here; we relay a true fact, which we would perhaps do better to keep silent, if we did not believe that every now and then we must reveal the martyrs among those beings we condemn without understanding, whom we scorn without giving a chance to defend themselves), it is shameful, we will say, but the mother told her daughter that they barely had enough for two people as it was, and could not support three; that children in such circumstances were useless, and that a pregnancy was just so much lost time.

The next day a midwife we know only as the friend of the mother came to see Louise, who remained in bed several days afterward, and emerged thereafter paler and weaker than before.

Three months later a man took pity on her and attempted to heal her morally and physically, but the last blow had been too violent, and Louise died from complications following her miscarriage.

Her mother still lives. How? God knows.

This story returned to my thoughts as I contemplated the silver toiletry articles, and I must have passed a significant period of time in my reflections, as there was no longer anyone in the apartment except for me and a guard who kept a watchful eye from the door, to be sure I didn’t make off with anything.

I walked up to this stout soul, in whom I provoked such grave anxiety.

“Sir,” I said to him, “could you tell me the name of the person who resided here?”

“Miss Marguerite Gautier.”

I knew that girl by name and by sight.

“What!” I said to the guard. “Marguerite Gautier is dead?”

“Yes, sir.”

“When did she die?”

“Three weeks ago, I believe.”

“And why are they permitting people to visit the apartment?”

“The creditors thought it would increase the selling prices. If people get a sense of the quality of the cloth and the furniture ahead of time, you understand, it boosts sales.”

“So she had debts?”

“Oh! Sir. Abundant debts.”

“But the sale will definitely cover them?”

“And then some.”

“Who will get the surplus, then?”

“Her family.”

“Then she has family?”

“So it would seem.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The guard, reassured of my good intentions, bowed to me, and I left.

“Poor girl!” I said to myself as I returned home. She must have died in a pitiable state, because in her crowd, you have friends only when things are going well. In spite of myself, I grieved for the fate of Marguerite Gautier.

This may seem ridiculous to many people, but I have an inexhaustible sympathy for the plight of courtesans, and I refuse to apologize for this indulgence.

Once as I was going to the police station to pick up a passport, I saw a girl being led away by two policemen down an adjoining road. I don’t know what the girl had done; all I can say is that she was shedding bitter tears while clutching a child a few months old, from whom her arrest would separate her. Since that day I have never been capable of despising a woman at first sight.