The Lady of the Camellias CHAPTER IX

“Good evening, my dear Gaston,” said Marguerite to my companion. “I am glad to see you. Why didn’t you come visit me in my box at the Variétés?”

“I was afraid it would be indiscreet.”

“Friends”—and Marguerite emphasized this word as if she wanted to make it clear to everyone there that, despite the familiar manner in which she welcomed him, Gaston was only, and never had been anything but, a friend—“friends are never indiscreet.”

“Then permit me to introduce you to M. Armand Duval!”

“I’d already authorized Prudence to do that.”

“Apart from that, madam,” I said while nodding and managing to produce a few nearly intelligible sounds, “I have already had the honor of being introduced to you.”

Marguerite’s charming eye seemed to search her memory, but she didn’t remember at all, or seemed not to.

“Madam,” I then resumed, “I am grateful that you have forgotten our first introduction, because I was quite ridiculous and must have seemed extremely tedious to you. It was two years ago, at the Opéra-Comique; I was with Ernest de . . . .”

“Ah! I remember!” Marguerite said with a smile. “It’s not you who were ridiculous; it is I who was teasing you, as I am again now, a bit, but less, all the same. Have you forgiven me, sir?”

She extended her hand to me; I kissed it.

“It’s true,” she continued. “Imagine, I have the bad habit of wanting to embarrass people the first time I meet them. It’s very silly. My doctor says it is because I am high-strung, and always sick—believe my doctor.”

“But you seem to be quite well.”

“Oh! I’ve been very sick.”

“I know.”

“Who told you?”

“Everyone knows; I came here often to get news of you, and I learned of your recovery with pleasure.”

“Nobody ever gave me your card.”

“I never left it.”

“Are you the young man who came every day to ask about me during my illness, and who never wanted to give his name?”

“It is I.”

“Well, you are more than indulgent; you are generous. You would not have done that, count,” she added, turning toward M. de N . . . , and after having cast over me one of those looks by which women complete their assessment of a man.

“I’ve only known you for two months,” replied the count.

“And this gentleman only knew me for five minutes. You always respond with inanities.”

Women are merciless to people they don’t like.

The count reddened and bit his lip.

I felt sorry for him, because he seemed to be in love just as I was, and Marguerite’s blunt frankness must have made him quite unhappy, especially in front of two strangers.

“You were playing music when we walked in,” I said, to change the subject. “Won’t you do me the pleasure of treating me as an old friend, and keep on playing?”

“Oh!” she said, as she threw herself on the couch and gestured for us to sit there too. “Gaston knows what kind of music I play. It’s all right when I’m alone with the count, but I would not want to force you to endure such torture.”

“You reserve that preference for me?” replied M. de N . . . with a smile that he tried to make knowing and ironic.

“You are wrong to reproach me for it; it’s the only preference I show you.”

It was obvious that this poor boy would not be allowed to speak a word. He gave the young woman a truly imploring look.

“So, Prudence,” she continued, “did you do what I asked you?”


“That’s good; you can tell me about it later. We have things to discuss—don’t leave before I’ve spoken with you.”

“Doubtless we are in the way,” I said. “And now that we have—or rather that I have—obtained a second introduction to cancel the memory of the first, Gaston and I will go.”

“Not at all; it is not for your benefit that I said that. On the contrary, I would like you to stay.”

The count pulled out an amazingly elegant watch, and checked the time. “It’s time for me to go to the club,” he said.

Marguerite made no response.

The count left the fireside and approached her. “Good-bye, madam.”

Marguerite rose. “Good-bye, my dear count; you’re leaving already?

“Yes, I was afraid I was boring you.”

“You didn’t bore me more today than you did any other day. When will we see you?”

“When you permit.”

“Adieu, then!”

It was cruel, you will admit.

Luckily the count had a fine upbringing and an excellent nature. He contented himself with kissing the hand that Marguerite extended nonchalantly to him, and left after bowing to us.

At the moment he crossed the threshold of the door, he looked at Prudence.

She shrugged her shoulders with an air that signified, “What do you want? I’ve done everything I could.”

“Nanine!” Marguerite cried. “Light the way for the count.”

We heard the door open and close.

“At last!” Marguerite cried, as she reappeared. “He’s gone. That boy got horribly on my nerves.”

“My dear child,” said Prudence, “you are really too unkind to him, he who is so good and so attentive to you. Here on your mantel is a watch that he has given you, and which must have cost him at least a thousand écus; I’m sure of it.”

And Mme Duvernoy, who had approached the mantelpiece, played with the trinket she was talking about, and threw covetous looks on it.

“My dear,” said Marguerite, sitting down to her piano, “when I weigh on one side what he gives to me and on the other what he says to me, I find that he gets his visits very cheaply.”

“That poor boy is in love with you.”

“If I had to listen to all the men who are in love with me, I wouldn’t have time to eat.”

And she ran her fingers over the piano, after which she turned to us and said, “Would you like anything? Me, I’d like to drink a little punch.”

“And I’d be happy to eat a spot of chicken,” said Prudence. “Shall we have supper?”

“Perfect—let’s go get some supper,” said Gaston.

“No, we will have supper here.”

She rang. Nanine appeared.

“Send out for supper.”

“What should I get?”

“Whatever you like, but right now—right now.”

Nanine left.

“Perfect,” Marguerite said, leaping like a child. “We’ll have supper. How boring that count is!”

The more I saw this woman, the more she enchanted me. She was ravishingly beautiful. Even her extreme slenderness seemed like a grace.

I was lost in thought.

What was occurring within me I would have difficulty explaining. I was full of indulgence for the life she led, full of admiration for her beauty. The proof of disinterestedness that she showed in refusing to accept a man who was young, elegant, rich, and ready to ruin himself for her excused all her past faults in my eyes.

There was something in this woman that you could call candor.

You could see she was still in the virginal stage of vice. Her assured step, her supple waist, her pink and flared nostrils, her large eyes shadowed with pale blue circles, all indicated one of those ardent natures that exhale a perfume of voluptuousness, like those flasks from the Orient from which, however tightly they are closed, let escape the fragrance of the elixir they contain.

Whether it was her nature or a consequence of her poor health, flashes of desire flickered in the eyes of this woman whose intensity would have been a heaven-sent revelation to any man who loved her. But those who had loved Marguerite could no longer be counted, and those she had loved had yet to be counted.

In short one could see in this girl both the virgin that an accident had turned courtesan, and the courtesan that an accident could have made the most loving and pure of virgins. There was pride and an independent spirit in Marguerite still—two feelings that, when injured, are capable of producing the same effect as modesty. I said nothing; my soul seemed to fill my heart and my heart to fill my eyes.

“So,” she said all at once, “you are the one who wanted news of me when I was ill.”


“Do you know, that’s a beautiful thing! How can I thank you?”

“Permit me to come to see you from time to time.”

“As often as you like—from five o’clock to six; from eleven o’clock to midnight. Say, Gaston, play for me ‘L’Invitation à la Valse.’”


“First, to give me pleasure, and next, because I can’t seem to play it myself.”

“What prevents you?”

“The third movement, the passage with the sharps.”

Gaston rose, went to the piano, and began to play that marvelous melody by Weber, whose music was open on the stand.

Marguerite, one hand leaning on the piano, looked at the sheet music, following each note with her eyes, which she accompanied softly with her voice, and when Gaston arrived at the passage that she’d indicated, she hummed while drumming her fingers on the back of the piano, “Re, mi, re, do, re, fa, mi, re—that’s what I can’t do. Start over.”

Gaston started again, and afterward Marguerite said to him, “Now let me try.”

She took her seat and played in her own turn, but her rebel fingers always mixed up one of the notes we had just read.

“It’s incredible,” she said, in a truly childish intonation, “that I can’t play this passage right! Can you believe that I sometimes stay up practicing it until two in the morning! And when I think that that imbecile count can play it by heart and play it well, that’s what makes me furious with him, I believe.”

And she started over, always with the same result.

“The devil take Weber, music, and all pianos!” she said, flinging the music across the room. “Doesn’t he understand I can’t play eight sharps in a row?”

And she crossed her arms while looking at us and tapping her foot.

The blood rushed to her cheeks, and a light cough parted her lips.

“Come now, come now,” said Prudence, who had taken off her hat and was smoothing her hair in front of the mirror. “You will get yourself into a state and hurt yourself. Let’s have our supper, that’s a better idea; and I’m dying of hunger.”

Marguerite rang the bell again, then sat down once more at the piano and began to faintly sing a bawdy song, whose accompaniment she did not muddle at all.

Gaston knew the song, and they turned it into a kind of duet.

“Don’t sing those bawdy tunes,” I said to Marguerite, familiarly, and with a supplicating air.

“Oh! How virtuous you are!” she said to me, smiling and extending her hand.

“It’s not for my sake; it’s for yours.”

Marguerite made a gesture that seemed to say, “Oh! I’ve been through with virtue for some time now.”

At this moment Nanine appeared.

“Is supper ready?” asked Marguerite.

“Yes, madam, in a moment.”

“Speaking of which,” said Prudence, “you haven’t seen the apartment. Come, I’ll give you a tour.”

You know, the living room was quite a marvel.

Marguerite went along with us for a bit, then she called to Gaston and went with him to the dining room to see if supper was ready.

“Goodness,” Prudence said loudly, looking at an étagère, and taking down a Saxon figurine, “I never knew you had this little fellow!”

“Which one?”

“A little shepherd holding a birdcage.”

“Take it if you like it.”

“Ah! But I’d hate to deprive you of it.”

“I was going to give it to my chambermaid. I think it’s hideous, but if you like it, take it.”

Prudence noticed only the fact of the gift, and not the manner in which it was given. She put her little fellow to the side, and led me into the dressing room, where, as she showed me two miniatures that hung there, she said, “So this is the Comte de G . . . , who was very in love with Marguerite; he’s the one who launched her career. Do you know him?”

“No. And this one?” I asked, pointing at another miniature.

“That’s the little Vicomte de L . . . . He was forced to leave town.”


“Because he was pretty much ruined. That’s another one who loved Marguerite!”

“And she doubtless loved him very much?”

“She’s such a queer girl, you never know what to make of her. On the evening of the day he left, she was at the theater as usual, and yet she cried at the time of his departure.”

At this moment Nanine appeared and announced that supper was served.

When we entered the dining room, Marguerite was leaning against the wall, and Gaston, holding her hands, was speaking to her softly.

“You’re crazy,” Marguerite was saying. “You know very well that I don’t want you in that way. You don’t spend two years getting to know a woman like me before asking to be her lover. Women like us give everything at once, or never. So gentlemen, suppertime.”

And, extricating her hands from Gaston’s, Marguerite seated him at her right, me at her left, then said to Nanine, “Before you sit down, tell the cook not to open the door if anyone rings.”

This instruction was given at one in the morning.

We laughed, we drank, and we ate much at this supper. Within moments the exuberance had reached the most outrageous levels, and the sort of witticisms that a certain segment of society finds charming but that always sully the mouth of the person who speaks them broke out again and again, to the cheers of Nanine, Prudence, and Marguerite. Gaston was enjoying himself hugely; he was a boy with a lot of heart, but his mind had apparently been a little warped by his early habits. At one moment I wanted to forget everything, close my heart and my mind to the spectacle that was before me, and take full part in the frivolity that seemed to be one of the courses of this meal; but little by little I withdrew myself from its noise, my glass remained full, and I became almost melancholy, watching this beautiful twenty-year-old creature drink, swear like a stevedore, and laugh louder the more scandalous the conversation became.

Although this gaiety and this manner of speaking and drinking seemed to me to be the natural result of debauchery, habit, or hardy constitution in the other revelers, in Marguerite, I felt it came from a need to forget, a fever, a nervous irritability. With each glass of champagne her cheeks were covered with a feverish blush, and a cough, mild at the beginning of the supper, eventually became strong enough to make her turn her head against the back of her chair and press her hands to her chest every time she coughed.

I suffered to think of the harm these daily excesses wrought on her frail organism.

Finally something happened that I had anticipated and had dreaded. Toward the end of supper Marguerite was overcome by a coughing fit that was stronger than all those she had endured while I was there. It was as if her chest were coming to pieces inside. The poor girl turned purple, closed her eyes from the pain, and brought her handkerchief to her lips; a drop of blood reddened it. She then rose and ran to her dressing room.

“What’s wrong with Marguerite?” asked Gaston.

“She laughed too much, and now she’s spitting blood,” said Prudence. “Oh! It’s nothing; it happens to her every day. She’ll come back. Leave her alone; she prefers it that way.”

As for me, I could not control myself, and to the great astonishment of Prudence and Nanine, who called out after me, I went to join Marguerite.