The Lady of the Camellias CHAPTER VI

I found Armand in bed.

When he saw me he extended a burning hand.

“You have a fever,” I told him.

“It’s nothing; I’m tired out from my journey, that’s all.”

“You’re coming from Marguerite’s sister’s house?”

“Yes, who told you?”

“I know all about it, and did you get what you wanted?”

“Yes again, but who told you about the trip and about the purpose I had in making it?”

“The gardener at the cemetery.”

“Did you see the grave?”

I hardly dared answer, as the tone in which he asked the question proved to me that the man who asked it was still captive to the emotion I had witnessed, and that for a long time to come, whenever his thoughts or the words of another would bring him back to this painful subject, this emotion would overpower his will.

I contented myself therefore by responding with a nod of the head.

“Has he taken good care of it?” Armand asked.

Two fat tears rolled down the cheeks of the invalid, who turned his head to hide them from me. I pretended not to see them and tried to change the conversation.

“You’ve been gone three weeks,” I said.

Armand passed his hand across his eyes and said, “Just three weeks.”

“Your trip was long.”

“Oh! I wasn’t traveling all the time. I was sick fifteen days; otherwise I would have come back a long time ago, but I’d hardly got there when fever took me, and I was forced to keep to my bed.”

“And you left again before you had recovered.”

“If I’d stayed eight days more in that part of the country, I would have died there.”

“But now that you’re back, you’ve got to take care of yourself; your friends will come see you. Me, first of all, if you permit.”

“In two hours I will get up.”

“What folly!”

“I must.”

“What do you have to do that’s so urgent?”

“I must go see the police commissioner.”

“Why don’t you send someone else on this mission that’s bound to make you sicker still?”

“It’s the only thing that can cure me. I must see her. Ever since I learned of her death, and above all ever since I saw her grave, I can’t sleep. I cannot comprehend that this woman I left so young and so beautiful is dead. I must assure myself of it in person. I must see what God has made of this creature I loved so much, and perhaps the horror of the sight will replace the despair of my memory. You will accompany me, won’t you, if it is not too tedious for you?”

“What did you tell her sister?”

“Nothing. She seemed astonished that a stranger would want to buy a plot and have a tomb made for Marguerite, and immediately signed the authorization I asked for.”

“Believe me, you must put this off until you are fully recovered.”

“Oh! I’ll be fine; don’t worry. Anyway, I would go crazy if I didn’t finish off this task that I’ve determined to do; my sorrow makes it imperative. I swear to you, I will be calm again only once I have seen Marguerite. Perhaps it’s a thirst brought on by the fever that consumes me, an insomniac dream, a product of my delirium, but if seeing her meant I would have to become a Trappist monk afterward like M. de RancĂ©, I would still want to see her.”

“I understand,” I told Armand. “I am at your disposal. Have you seen Julie Duprat?”

“Yes. Oh! I saw her the very day of my first return.”

“Did she give you the documents Marguerite had left for you?”

“Here they are.”

Armand pulled out a roll of papers from beneath his pillow, and put it back immediately.

“I know by heart what those papers contain,” he told me. “For three weeks I have reread them ten times a day. You will read them too, but later, when I’m calmer, and when I will be able to make you understand everything these confessions reveal about her heart and her love. At the moment I have a favor to ask you.”

“Which is?”

“You have a carriage downstairs?”


“Could you please take my passport and go ask at the post office if there are any letters for me? My father and my sister must have written to me in Paris, and I left with such precipitate haste that I didn’t take time to check before I left. Once you’re back we’ll go together to alert the police commissioner to tomorrow’s ceremony.”

Armand gave me his passport, and I went to rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

There were two letters for Duval; I took them and came back.

When I returned, Armand was dressed and ready to go out.

“Thank you,” he said, taking his letters. “Yes,” he added, after having looked at the addresses. “Yes, it’s from my father and my sister. They must have been perplexed by my silence.”

He opened the letters, and seemed more to divine their contents than to read them, as they were four pages each, and he folded them back up after an instant.

“Let’s go,” he said. “I’ll write back tomorrow.”

We went to see the police commissioner, to whom Armand gave the authorization from Marguerite’s sister.

In exchange the commissioner gave him a release to give to the caretaker of the cemetery; it was agreed that the transfer would take place the next day at ten in the morning, that I would drop by Armand’s an hour beforehand, and that we would go together to the cemetery.

I, too, was curious to attend this spectacle, and I swear I did not sleep at all that night.

Judging from the thoughts that haunted me, it must have been a long night for Armand as well. When I entered his home the next day at nine o’clock, he was horribly pale but seemed to be calm.

He smiled at me and gave me his hand.

His candles had burnt down to the end, and before going out, Armand took up a thick letter, addressed to his father, in which he no doubt had confided his impressions of the night.

Half an hour later we arrived at Montmartre.

The commissioner was already waiting for us.

We walked slowly in the direction of Marguerite’s grave. The commissioner was first in line; Armand and I followed a few steps behind.

From time to time I could feel my companion’s arm shudder convulsively, as if he had been overtaken by sudden shivering. I would look at him then, and he would understand my look and smile at me, but from the time we left his home we did not exchange one word.

A little before we reached the grave, Armand stopped to wipe his face, which was beaded with perspiration.

I took advantage of this break to breathe, because I myself felt as if my heart were squeezed in a vise.

What is the source of the melancholy pleasure one takes in this sort of spectacle! When we arrived at the grave, the gardener had removed all the flowerpots, the wrought-iron trellis had been removed, and two men were digging up the earth.

Armand leaned against a tree and watched.

It seemed as if all his life were passing before his eyes.

Suddenly one of the two shovels struck stone.

With this noise Armand recoiled as from an electric shock and gripped my hand with such force that he hurt me.

A gravedigger took a broad shovel and emptied the grave little by little; then when there was nothing left but the rocks that covered the coffin, he threw them behind him one by one.

I watched Armand, fearing at every minute that the intense emotions he was so visibly undergoing might break him; but he kept watching, his eyes fixed and open as if in rapture, and only a gentle tremor in his cheeks and lips proved he was the victim of a violent nervous shock.

As for me, I can say only one thing, which is that I was sorry I had come.

When the bier was completely uncovered, the commissioner said to the gravediggers, “Open it.”

The men obeyed as if it were the simplest thing in the world.

The coffin was made of oak, and they began to unscrew the upper casing that covered it. The dampness of the earth had rusted the screws, and it was not without effort that the coffin was opened. An odor of infection seeped out, in spite of the aromatic plants that had been strewn within.

“O my God! My God!” murmured Armand, and again he turned pale.

Even the gravediggers drew back.

A large white shroud covered the corpse, outlining some of its sinuous curves. This shroud was almost completely eaten away at one end; a foot of the dead woman stuck through.

I was very nearly sick, and at the hour in which I write these lines, the memory of this scene appears to me again in its daunting reality.

“Let’s hurry,” the commissioner said.

One of the two men extended a hand and began undoing the shroud, and seizing one end he brusquely uncovered the face of Marguerite.

It was terrible to see; it is horrible to describe.

Her eyes were nothing more than two holes, her lips had disappeared, and her white teeth were crowded one against the other. Her long, dry black hair was stuck to her temples, veiling somewhat the green cavities of her cheeks, and yet I could recognize in this visage the white, pink, and joyful face I had so often seen.

Armand, unable to avert his gaze from this face, had brought his handkerchief to his mouth and was biting it.

As for me it seemed as if a circlet of iron were bound around my head, a veil covered my eyes, buzzing filled my ears, and all I could do was open a small vial I had brought by chance and inhale deeply the salts it contained.

In the midst of this daze, I heard the commissioner say to M. Duval, “Do you make the identification?”

“Yes,” the young man replied dumbly.

“Close it up and take it away,” said the commissioner.

The gravediggers threw the shroud back over the face of the dead woman, closed the coffin, and each took it by one end and headed toward the designated place.

Armand did not move. His eyes were riveted on the empty pit; he was as pale as the corpse we had just seen. You would have said he’d been turned to stone.

I understood what was likely to happen once his grief had subsided, reduced by distance from the spectacle; as a result I left his side.

I approached the commissioner.

“Is the presence of the gentleman still necessary?” I asked, indicating Armand.

“No,” he said, “and I would actually advise you to take him away, because he looks ill.”

“Come,” I said to Armand, taking his arm.

“What?” he said, looking at me as if he didn’t recognize me.

“It’s over,” I said. “You’ve got to go, my friend—you’re pale, you’re cold, you’ll kill yourself with this distress.”

“You’re right. Let’s get out of here,” he responded mechanically, without taking a step.

I grabbed him by the arm and led him off.

He let himself be guided like a child, murmuring only now and again, “Did you see her eyes?”

And he turned around, as if that vision had summoned her back.

But his step became irregular; he was no longer able to advance except by jolts. His teeth chattered; his hands were cold; a violent nervous agitation spread across his entire body.

I spoke to him; he did not answer.

All he could do was let himself be guided.

He had hardly sat down when the shivering increased, and he had a true nervous fit, in the middle of which, for fear of frightening me, he murmured while pressing my hand, “It’s nothing, it’s nothing; I just wish I could cry.”

I heard his chest heave, and a flush spread to his eyes, but tears would not come.

I made him breathe the smelling salts that had served me, and when we arrived at his place, only the shivering still manifested itself.

With help from the servant I put him to bed, had a big fire lit in his bedroom, and ran to find my doctor, to whom I related what had just happened.

He hurried over.

Armand was purple. He was delirious, and stammered incoherent words, in which only the name Marguerite could be distinctly heard.

“Well?” I said to the doctor when he had examined the patient.

“He has brain fever, no more, no less, and that’s a good thing, because I believe, God forgive me, that otherwise he would have gone mad. Luckily the physical illness will kill the psychological illness, and in one month he will be delivered from one, and perhaps from the other.”