The Lady of the Camellias CHAPTER III

On the sixteenth, at one o’clock, I presented myself at the rue d’Antin.

From the gate you could hear the cries of the auctioneers. The apartment was filled with curious onlookers.

All the notoriously elegant celebrities were there, being surreptitiously inspected by the fashionable ladies who once again were using the pretext of the sale to indulge their right to get a closer look at women with whom they would never have had occasion to mingle, and whose simple pleasures they perhaps secretly envied.

Mme la Duchesse de F . . . jostled with Mlle A . . . , one of the saddest specimens among our modern courtesans; Mme la Marquise de T . . . hesitated to buy a piece of furniture that was being bid upon by Mme D . . . , the most elegant and noted adulteress of our time; the Duc d’Y . . . , who leaves Madrid only to ruin himself in Paris, and leaves Paris only to ruin himself in Madrid, and who, with all his excesses, doesn’t even exhaust the principal on his income, chatted with Mme M . . . , one of our wittiest raconteurs, who when she feels like it, writes down what she says and signs her name to it, while exchanging confidential glances with Mme de N . . . , that lovely perambulator of the Champs-Élysées, who is almost always dressed in pink or blue and whose carriage is drawn by two giant black horses, which Tony had sold her for ten thousand francs and which sum she had paid him, in her way; and finally Mlle R . . . , who earned through sheer talent twice what society ladies fetched with their dowries and three times what other women brought in with their arts, had come, despite the cold, to make some purchases, and she was not the one who drew the least attention.

We could also give the initials of a number of people who were reunited in this living room and were astonished to find themselves thrown together; but we fear we might weary the reader.

Let us merely say that everyone was suffused with a mad gaiety, and that among those present, many had known the dead woman, and seemed not to remember that fact.

There was much hearty laughter; the auctioneers shouted at earsplitting volume; the salesmen who had invaded the benches in front of the selling tables tried in vain to quiet things down so they could conduct their business calmly. Never had a reunion been noisier or more varied.

I was gliding inobtrusively into the middle of this depressing tumult when I recalled that there was an area near the bedroom in which the poor creature had died where her furniture was being sold to pay off her debts. Having come more with the intention of looking than buying, I studied the faces of the auctioneers, whose expressions bloomed radiantly every time an object reached a price they had never dreamed possible.

Honest people who had speculated on the prostitution of this woman, who had profited a hundred percent from her, who had followed the last moments of her life in gossip circulars, and who had come after her death to gather the fruits of their honorable calculations and at the same time to serve the interests of their shameful credit.

How right the ancients were who had the same god for merchants and for thieves!

Dresses, shawls, jewels sold with incredible speed. None of that held any interest for me, so I kept waiting.

Suddenly I heard the cry:

“One volume, perfect-bound, gilded on the spine, entitled: ‘Manon Lescaut.’ There’s something written on the first page. Ten francs.”

“Twelve,” said a voice after a rather long silence.

“Fifteen,” I said.

Why? I do not know. No doubt for this “something written.”

“Fifteen,” repeated the auctioneer.

“Thirty,” said the first bidder, in a tone that seemed to defy anyone to challenge him.

It became a battle.

“Thirty-five!” I shouted, in the same tone.




“A hundred.”

I swear that if my goal had been to cause a sensation, I would have completely succeeded, because with this bid a great silence took over, and everyone started looking at me to figure out who this fellow was who seemed so intent on acquiring this book.

Apparently the emphasis I put on my last word convinced my antagonist, and he abandoned this battle, which had served only to make me pay ten times what the volume was worth. Leaning toward me, he said to me quite graciously, if somewhat tardily, “I yield, sir.”

Nobody else having spoken, the book went to me.

Lest a new wave of stubbornness overtake me, which my pride might have enjoyed, but which my purse would have taken ill, I wrote down my name, had the book put to the side, and left. I must have given plenty to think about to the people who witnessed this scene, who undoubtedly asked themselves why on earth I had paid a hundred francs for a book I could have gotten anywhere for ten or fifteen francs at the most.

An hour later I sent for my purchase.

On the first page was written in ink, in an elegant script, a dedication to the recipient of the book. This dedication carried these sole words:



It was signed: Armand Duval.

What did this word mean: humility?

Would Manon recognize in Marguerite, in M. Armand Duval’s opinion, a superiority of vice, or of heart?

The latter interpretation seemed more likely, as the former would have been nothing but an insolent liberty that Marguerite could not have appreciated, whatever her opinion of herself.

I went out again and thought no more of the book until that night, as I was going to bed.

Certainly Manon Lescaut is a touching story, of which not one detail is unknown to me, and yet whenever I find that book in my hand, my sympathy for it draws me, I open it, and for the hundredth time I live again with Abbé Prévost’s heroine. That heroine is so real that I feel as if I have known her. In this new circumstance, the comparison made between her and Marguerite gave an unexpected character to my reading, and, out of pity, my indulgence for the poor girl who had left behind this volume grew into something almost like love. Manon had died in a desert, it is true, but in the arms of the man who had loved her with all the energy of his soul, who, when she was dead, laid her in a grave, watered her with his tears, and buried his own heart with her; whereas Marguerite, a sinner like Manon, and perhaps a convert like her, had died in the bosom of sumptuous luxury, and, if I could believe my own eyes, in the bed of her own past, but amid a desert of the heart far more arid, far more vast, far more pitiless than that in which Manon had been buried.

And in fact Marguerite, as I learned from friends who knew of the final circumstances of her life, had not had one single truly consoling visit at her bedside throughout the two months of her lingering and painful death struggle.

And then, from Manon and Marguerite, my thoughts traveled to certain women I knew who lightheartedly pursued the same path to destruction, which hardly ever varies its route.

Poor creatures! If it’s wrong to love them, the least we can do is to pity them. You pity the blind man who has never seen the rays of the sun, the deaf man who has never heard the sounds of nature, the mute who has never been able to give voice to his soul, and yet, under the false pretext of modesty, you choose not to pity that blindness of the heart, that deafness of the soul, that muteness of conscience, which drive a miserable afflicted woman mad and make her incapable, however much she might wish it, of seeing goodness, of hearing the Lord, and of speaking the pure language of love and faith.

Victor Hugo created Marion Delorme, Alfred de Musset created Frederic and Bernerette, Alexandre Dumas created Fernande, the thinkers and poets of the ages have bestowed the gift of mercy upon the courtesan, and sometimes a great man has rehabilitated them by virtue of his love, and sometimes even with his name.

If I insist in this way upon this point, it is because among those who will read me, many perhaps are already inclined to throw down this book, fearing they will find nothing in it but an apology for vice and prostitution, and the youth of the author no doubt adds to this concern. But let those who would think this way disabuse themselves, and let them continue reading, if this is the only fear that holds them back.

I am quite simply convinced of one principle, which is this: For a woman whose education has not taught her goodness, God almost always opens the way to two paths that lead to it—the path of suffering, and the path of love. They are difficult; those who walk them end up with bleeding feet, their hands scraped raw, and brambles along the road snag the trappings of their vice until they arrive at their end with that nudity at which one does not blush in the presence of the Lord.

Anyone who encounters these hardy travelers must support them, and tell everyone that they have encountered them, because by spreading this news, they show the way.

It is not a question of baldly placing two markers at the outset of life’s journey, one of them bearing the inscription “The Good Path,” the other the warning “The Bad Path,” and telling those who present themselves to choose. One must, like Christ, show the side roads that will lead those who have been tempted onto the second path back to the first; and above all, one must not make the first steps of the road back too painful or seem too arduous to undertake.

Christianity supplies the marvelous parable of the prodigal son to teach us indulgence and forgiveness. Jesus was full of compassion for souls wounded by mortal passions, and whose wounds he liked to salve, dressing them with balm he drew from the wounds themselves. In this way, he said to the magdalen, “Much will be forgiven because you have loved much.” A sublime pardon that awoke a sublime faith.

Why would we make ourselves more inflexible than Christ? Why, in clinging obstinately to opinions of people who affect severity in order to be thought strong, would we spurn, as they do, souls that bleed with wounds that, like the diseased blood of an invalid, surge with the evil of their pasts, and require nothing more than a friendly hand to tend them and heal their hearts?

It is my own generation that I address, those for whom the theories of Monsieur Voltaire happily no longer hold, those who, like me, understand that for fifteen years humanity has been caught up in one of its most audacious moments. The knowledge of good and evil has been gained once and for all; faith is being rebuilt; respect for holy things has returned to us; and if the world has not achieved perfection in every respect, it is at least better. The efforts of all men of intelligence strive toward the same goal, and all great wills apply themselves to the same principle: Let us be good, let us be young, let us be sincere! Evil is nothing but vanity; let us take pride in the good, and, above all, let us not despair.

Let us not despise the woman who is neither mother nor daughter nor wife. Let us not limit our esteem to family life, narrow our tolerance to simple egotism. Given that heaven rejoices more at the repentance of one sinner than over a hundred good men who have never sinned, let us endeavor to make heaven rejoice. We may be rewarded with interest. Let us leave along the path the alms of our forgiveness for those whose earthly desires have marooned them, so that a divine hope may save them, and, as the wise old women say when they prescribe a remedy of their own invention, if it doesn’t help, at least it can’t hurt.

Certainly it must seem presumptuous of me to seek to draw such grand conclusions from the slender matter I treat here, but I am one of those who believe that the whole resides in the part. The child is small, and contains the man; the brain is a cramped space that houses all thought; the eye is only a dot, and encompasses miles.