The Lady of the Camellias CHAPTER II

The sale was to take place on the sixteenth.

An interval of one day had been set between the open house and the sale, to give the drapers time to remove the hangings, curtains, and so on.

At that time I had recently returned from a trip. It was natural enough that nobody would have regarded the death of Marguerite as one of those juicy tidbits of news that friends make sure to tell anyone who returns to the capital of gossip. Marguerite was pretty, but the stir that such attention-getting women kick up in life fades quickly in death. They are suns that set just as they rose, without fanfare. Their deaths, when they die young, are discovered by all their lovers at the same time, because in Paris, nearly all the lovers of a well-known courtesan are intimately acquainted with one another. A few memories are shared about her, then everyone’s lives continue as before, without the incident provoking a single tear.

These days, by the time you are twenty-five years old, tears come so rarely that you don’t want to waste them on just anybody. It’s more than enough to weep for the parents who have paid for the privilege of being mourned.

As for me, although my monogram did not appear on any of Marguerite’s little necessities, this instinctive indulgence of mine—the natural pity I confessed just a little while ago—made me think of her death for a longer time than she perhaps deserved.

I recalled having very often run into Marguerite on the Champs-Élysées, where she rode without fail every day in a little blue coupé drawn by two magnificent bay horses, and remembered that I had observed in her at those times a distinction that women of her kind rarely possessed, a distinction that elevated her truly exceptional beauty.

Those unfortunate creatures are always accompanied when they go out, by whom nobody knows.

Since no man consents to publicly proclaim the nocturnal weakness he has for them, and since they are terrified of solitude, they drag along with them either women who, less fortunate than themselves, don’t have a carriage, or one of those elegant old ladies who are considered elegant for no clear reason, and with whom one can speak without fear when one wants to obtain information of any sort about the women they accompany.

There was nobody like that for Marguerite. She always arrived on the Champs-Élysées alone, in her carriage, where she kept as discreet a profile as possible; in winter wrapped up in a great shawl, in summer wearing very simple dresses; and although there were plenty of people she knew along her favorite route, when by chance she smiled at them the smile was visible to them alone, a smile worthy of a duchess.

She did not ride back and forth from the Rond-Point to the entry of the Champs-Élysées, as her fellow courtesans did and do. Her two horses carried her rapidly to the Bois. There she would disembark from the carriage, walk for an hour, then climb back into her carriage and return home with her team at a swift trot.

All these circumstances, which I had sometimes witnessed, flashed before my eyes, and I mourned the death of this girl as one would mourn the complete destruction of any beautiful work of art.

In short, it was impossible to conceive of a beauty more charming than Marguerite’s.

Tall and slender almost to excess, she possessed to a supreme degree the art of concealing this oversight of nature by artfully arranging the things she wore. The generous flounces of her silken gown spilled from both sides of her shawl, whose tip touched the ground; and the thick muff that concealed her hands, and which she pressed against her bosom, was cleverly positioned among the pleats of her dress such that the eye could find no fault in her contours.

Her head, a marvel, was the product of particularly felicitous coquetry. It was small, and her mother, as de Musset said, seemed to have made it small in order to make it with care.

Into an oval of indescribable grace, set a pair of black eyes with brows so perfectly arched that they look painted on; veil those eyes with long lashes that cast a shadow on the rosy hue of her cheeks when they are lowered; trace a fine nose, straight, spiritual, the nostrils slightly dilated in their ardent aspiration for the sensual life; draw a symmetrical mouth, whose lips open graciously on teeth as white as milk; color the skin with the velvet that covers peaches no hand has touched, and you will have before you the ensemble of that charming head.

Jet-black hair, naturally waved or not, descended from her forehead in two large bands, and disappeared behind her head, permitting a glimpse of her ears, upon which sparkled two diamonds, worth four to five thousand francs apiece.

The fact that her passionate life had somehow produced the virginal, childlike expression that characterized Marguerite’s face was something we were forced to accept without understanding it.

Marguerite had a wonderful portrait done by Vidal, the only man whose pencil could do her justice. After her death I had this portrait in my possession for several days, and the likeness was so astonishing that it served to furnish me with specific details that had eluded my memory.

Among the details in this chapter are a few that came to me only later, but I write them down at once so as not to need to return to them, once this woman’s eventful history begins.

Marguerite attended every premiere, and spent all her evenings either at the theater or at a ball. Each time a new play was performed, one could be sure to see her there, with three items she was never without, which always occupied the front of her ground-floor theater box: her opera glasses, a bag of candy, and a bouquet of camellias.

During twenty-five days of the month, the camellias were white, and during five they were red; nobody has ever known the reason for this variation in color, which I note without being able to explain it, and which her friends and the habitués of the theaters she most frequently attended often remarked upon, just as I do.

Nobody had ever seen Marguerite with any flowers but camellias. And at Mme Barjon, her florist, she had been given the nickname “the lady of the camellias,” and the name had stuck.

I knew besides, as does everyone who belongs to a certain Parisian social milieu, that Marguerite had been the mistress of the most fashionable young men, that she said so openly, and that the men prided themselves on the association, which proved that both lovers and mistress were happy with each other.

However, for three years or so, after a trip to Bagnères, she had only kept company, it was said, with an old foreign duke, enormously rich, who had tried to separate her as much as possible from her old life, something to which she seemed to have submitted with reasonably good grace.

Here is what I was told on this subject.

In the spring of 1842, Marguerite was so weak, so changed, that the doctors ordered her to take a rest cure and she left for Bagnères.

Among the invalids was the daughter of this duke, who not only had the same illness but also resembled Marguerite in the face, to the point that you could have taken them for sisters. But the young duchess was in the final stages of consumption, and a few days after Marguerite’s arrival she died.

One morning the duke, who had stayed at Bagnères as one does linger on the soil where one has buried a part of one’s heart, caught sight of Marguerite around the curve of a tree-lined road.

It seemed to him as if he were seeing the shade of his child pass by, and, walking toward her, he took her by the hands, embraced her in tears, and, without asking who she was, begged permission to see her and to love in her the living image of his dead daughter.

Marguerite, who was alone at Bagnères except for her maid, and who in any case had no fear of compromising herself, granted the duke what he asked.

There were some people at Bagnères who knew her, and who approached the duke in an official capacity to warn him of Mlle Gautier’s true nature. This news came as a blow to the old man, because in that respect any resemblance to his daughter ceased, but it was already too late. The young woman had become a necessity of his heart and his only reason, his only excuse, to go on living.

He made her no reproach—he did not have the right—but he asked her if she felt she was capable of changing her way of life, offering in exchange for this sacrifice all the compensation she could desire. She agreed.

It must be admitted that at this moment Marguerite, whose fundamental nature was lively, was sick. She had come to regard her past as one of the principal causes of her illness, and a sort of superstition made her hope that God would allow her to keep her beauty and health if she would repent and reform.

And, in truth, the waters, the long walks, honest fatigue, and rest had very nearly restored her to health when summer came to an end.

The duke accompanied Marguerite to Paris, where he continued to come see her as he had done at Bagnères.

This liaison, of which nobody knew the true origin or motivation, caused a great stir here, and the duke, who previously had been known for his great wealth, now became known for his prodigality.

The duke’s intimacy with the young woman was put down to libertinage, so common among rich old men. Everything was assumed, except for what actually was happening.

However, the feelings that this father had for Marguerite had such innocent roots that any connection with her other than a connection of the heart would have seemed like incest to him, and he never spoke a word to her that his daughter might not have heard.

But let’s not make out our heroine to be any finer than she was. We shall say, therefore, that as long as she remained in Bagnères, it was not hard for her to keep the promise she had made the duke, and she kept it; but once back in Paris, this girl who had been accustomed to a life of dissipation, balls, even orgies, felt as if she would die of boredom in her solitude, which was interrupted only by periodic visits from the duke, and memories of her former life burned in her mind and heart like scorching gusts.

Add to this that Marguerite had come back from this trip more beautiful than ever, that she was twenty years old, and that the illness that had been tamed, but not vanquished, lingered, provoking those fiery passions that nearly always result from an inflammation of the chest.

The duke suffered great pain, therefore, on the day when his friends, who were always on the watch for scandal involving the young woman with whom he was compromising himself, so they said, came to tell him that whenever she was sure he would not be coming to see her, she had guests over, and that those visits often lasted the whole night.

Upon being questioned, Marguerite confessed everything to the duke, and advised him without a moment’s hesitation to stop troubling himself with her, because she did not have the strength to keep the agreement they’d made, and did not want to continue receiving the kindnesses of a man she was deceiving.

For eight days the duke stayed away; it was the most he could do. But on the eighth day, he came to beg Marguerite to receive him again, promising he would accept her just the way she was as long as he could see her, and swearing to her that on pain of death he would never reproach her.

This is where things stood three months after Marguerite’s return—which is to say, in November or December of 1842.