The Lady of the Camellias CHAPTER X

The room where she had taken refuge was lit by only a single candle, placed on a table. Fallen back on a long sofa, her dress undone, she held one hand to her heart and let the other one hang down. On the table was a silver basin half-full of water; the water was marbled with streaks of blood.

Marguerite, very pale, her mouth parted, tried to catch her breath. At moments her chest inflated with a long sigh that, upon exhalation, seemed to relieve her a little, and left her for a few seconds with a feeling of well-being.

I drew near to her without her making a movement, sat down, and took the hand she had draped on the sofa.

“Ah! It’s you?” she said with a smile.

I must have looked upset, because she added, “Are you sick too?”

“No, but you, are you still in pain?”

“Very little.” And with her handkerchief she wiped away the tears that the coughing had brought to her eyes. “I am used to it now.”

“You are going to kill yourself, madam,” I told her in a voice full of emotion. “I wish I were your friend, or a relative, so I could keep you from harming yourself in this way.”

“Ah! There’s really no point in your getting alarmed,” she replied in a bitter tone. “Just see if the others are worried about me—they know very well that there’s nothing to be done in my case.”

After saying this she rose, and taking the candle, set it on the mantel and looked at herself in the mirror.

“How pale I am!” she said, refastening her dress, and running her fingers through her disordered hair. “Ah! Bah! Let’s go back to the table. Are you coming?”

I remained seated, and did not move.

Understanding the emotion that this scene had provoked in me, she came up to me and, holding out her hand, said, “Now then, come.”

I took her hand; I raised it to my lips, dampening it, in spite of myself, with two long-suppressed tears.

“My goodness, but you are a child!” she said, sitting beside me. “You’re crying! What’s the matter with you?”

“I must seem quite ridiculous to you, but what I have just seen has caused me terrible pain.”

“You’re a funny one! What do you want? I can’t sleep; I have to distract myself a little. And then, girls like me, one less or one more of us, what’s the difference? The doctors tell me the blood I spit comes from my lungs. I pretend I believe them; that’s all there is for me to do.”

“Listen, Marguerite,” I said, in an emphatic tone I could not restrain, “I do not know what impact you are to have on my life, but I know that, at this moment, there is nobody, not even my sister, in whom I take as great an interest as I do in you. It has been this way since the first time I saw you. In Heaven’s name, take better care of yourself, and don’t continue to live as you are doing.”

“If I take care of myself, I will die. What sustains me is the feverish life I lead. And then again, taking care of yourself is fine for society ladies who have family and friends; but women like me, once we are no longer able to feed the vanity or pleasure of our lovers, they abandon us, and long days are followed by long nights. I know it well. Come now, I spent two months confined to my bed; after three weeks, nobody came to see me anymore.”

“It’s true that I am nothing to you,” I went on, “but if you wished, I would look after you like a brother, I would not leave you, and I would make you better. So, when you regain your strength, you may resume the life you lead, if that’s what you would like; but I am sure you would prefer a tranquil existence that would make you happier and would preserve your beauty.”

“That’s how you think tonight, because the wine has made you melancholy, but you will find that you do not have the patience you pride yourself on.”

“Permit me to tell you, Marguerite, that you were ill for two months, and during those two months, I came every day to get news of you.”

“That’s true, but why didn’t you come up?”

“Because I did not know you then.”

“Why would anyone take pains with a girl like me?”

“Everyone takes pains with a girl; that’s my opinion, at least.”

“In that case, you will take care of me?”


“You will stay beside me every day?”


“And even all the nights?”

“All the time, as long as I don’t bore you.”

“What do you call that?”


“And where does this devotion come from?”

“From an irresistible affection I have for you.”

“So you are in love with me?” she said instantly. “That makes things easier.”

“It’s possible, but if I were to tell you about it someday, it would not be today.”

“You would do better to never tell me about it.”


“Because only two things could result from such a declaration.”

“Which are?”

“Either I would not accept you, in which case you would resent me, or I would accept you, in which case you would find yourself stuck with an unfortunate mistress—a neurotic woman who’s either ill and sad, or else is lighthearted with a lightheartedness that is sadder than heartbreak, a woman who spits blood and spends a hundred thousand francs a year. That’s just fine for a rich old man like the duke but it’s tiresome for a young man like you, and the proof of that is, all the young lovers I’ve had have left me quickly.”

I made no response; I listened. This frankness that amounted almost to confession, the reality of this painful life that I was able to glimpse beneath the golden veil that covered it, which the poor girl fled through decadence, drunkenness, and insomnia, all of it stirred me so profoundly that I could not speak a word.

“Let us go,” continued Marguerite. “We are speaking childishly. Give me your arm and let us return to the dining room. They must wonder what our absence means.”

“Return if you like, but I beg your permission to remain here.”


“Because your merriment pains me too much.”

“All right, I’ll be sad.”

“Listen, Marguerite, let me tell you something that has been said to you often, no doubt, and which the habit of hearing may keep you from taking seriously, but which is no less true for that, and which I will never say to you again.

“Which is . . . ?” she said, with the smile that young mothers put on when they listen to some nonsensical tale from a child.

“It is that ever since I saw you, I do not know how or why, you have occupied a place in my life. I have tried to chase the vision of you from my mind, but it has always come back to me, and it is only today, when I saw you again, after two years of not having seen you, that you took an even greater hold on my heart and spirit than before, and at last, now that you have invited me in, now that I know you, now that I know all that is strange about you, you have become indispensable to me, and I will go mad, not only if you do not love me, but if you do not permit me to love you.”

“Unfortunate though you are, I will tell you what Mme D . . . said: You must be rich! But you do not know that I spend six or seven thousand francs a month, and that this expense has become necessary to my life; you don’t know, my poor friend, that I would ruin you in next to no time, and that your family would disown you if you were to live with a creature like me. Like me as you would like a good friend, but in no other way. Come see me—we will laugh, we will talk, but do not exaggerate my worth to yourself, because I am not worth very much. You have a good heart, you need to be loved, you are too young and too sensitive to live in our world. Take a married woman for a lover. You see that I am a good-natured girl, and that I speak to you frankly.”

“Ah, what’s this! What in the devil are you doing?” cried Prudence, whom we had not heard enter, and who appeared on the threshold of the room with her hair half-undone and her dress unbuttoned. I recognized in this disorder the hand of Gaston.

“We are speaking sensibly,” Marguerite said. “Leave us for a little; we will rejoin you in a moment.”

“Fine, fine; talk, my children,” said Prudence, as she left and shut the door as if to reinforce the tone in which she had pronounced those last words.

“So, it’s agreed,” resumed Marguerite when we were alone. “You will not love me anymore.”

“I will leave.”

“Has it come to this?”

I had gone too far to take it back, and anyway, this girl overwhelmed me. Her mixture of lightheartedness, sadness, candor, prostitution, even her illness, which had heightened the sensitivity of her impressions as well as the irritability of her nerves, all gave me to understand that if, on this first occasion, I did not assert myself on this forgetful, light creature, she would be lost to me.

“Goodness, so what you were saying was serious!” she said.

“Very serious.”

“But why didn’t you tell me that earlier?”

“When would I have told you?”

“The day after you were introduced to me at the Opéra-Comique.”

“I think you would have received me impolitely if I had come to see you.”


“Because I had been stupid the night before.”

“That’s true. But nonetheless, you already loved me back then.”


“Which did not prevent you from going to bed and sleeping tranquilly after the performance. We know what kind of great loves those are.”

“Actually, you are wrong. Do you know what I did the night of the Opéra-Comique?”


“I waited for you on the doorstep of the Café Anglais. I followed the carriage that took you away, you and your three friends, and when I saw you get out of the carriage alone and go home alone to your place, I was very happy.”

Marguerite began to laugh.

“What are you laughing about?”


“Tell me, I beg you, or I will believe that you are making fun of me again.”

“You won’t get angry?”

“What right would I have to get angry?”

“Well, there was a good reason why I went home alone.”

“What was it?”

“Someone was waiting for me here.”

She could have stabbed me and it couldn’t have hurt me more. I rose, and gave her my hand. “Good-bye,” I said.

“I knew you would get angry,” she said. “Men are so desperate to find things out that will only hurt them.”

“But I assure you,” I added coldly, as if I wanted to prove that I had been cured of my passion forever, “I assure you that I am not angry. It was quite natural that someone would have been waiting for you, just as it is quite natural that I would leave at three in the morning.”

“Do you also have someone waiting for you at home?”

“No, but I must go.”

“Good-bye, in that case.”

“You’re sending me away.”

“That’s the last thing in the world I would do.”

“Why do you hurt me?”

“How have I hurt you?”

“You tell me that someone was waiting for you.”

“I couldn’t help myself from laughing at the idea that you had been so happy to see me go home alone, when there’d been such a good reason for it.”

“A person often derives joy from a childish fancy, and it’s cruel to destroy that fancy when, by letting it linger, you could make the person who holds it happier.”

“But who do you think you’re dealing with? I am neither a virgin nor a duchess. I only met you today, and I am not accountable to you for my actions. In considering the possibility that one day I might become your mistress, you will need to know that I have had other lovers besides you. If you are already making jealous scenes beforehand, what might happen afterward—if an afterward were ever to exist! I’ve never come across a man like you.”

“That is because nobody has ever loved you as I love you.”

“Come now; frankly, you really love me?”

“As much as it is possible to love, I believe.”

“And how long has this been going on?”

“Since the day I saw you get out of your barouche and walk into Susse’s, three years ago.”

“Do you know that that’s a beautiful thing you just said? And what must I do to acknowledge this great love?”

“You must love me a little,” I said, my heart beating so violently that I could barely speak; because, despite the half-mocking smiles with which she had accompanied this entire conversation, it seemed to me that Marguerite was beginning to share in my agitation, and that I was nearing the hour I had awaited for such a long time.

“And the duke?”

“What duke?”

“My old jealous guardian.”

“He won’t know a thing.”

“And if he finds out?”

“He’ll forgive you.”

“No he won’t! He’ll leave me, and what’s to become of me?”

“You are already risking that abandonment for another man.”

“How do you know?”

“Because of the instruction you gave not to let anyone in tonight.”

“That’s true, but that one is a serious friend.”

“Who you are not all that committed to, if you bar your door to him at such an hour.”

“You are hardly the one to reproach me, since it was in order to receive you, you and your friend, that the door was barred.”

Little by little I had come nearer to Marguerite. I put my hands around her waist, and felt the light weight of her supple body against my linked hands.

“If you knew how I love you!” I said softly.

“Is it really true?”

“I swear it to you.”

“Well then, if you promise to satisfy all my demands without saying a word, without criticizing me, without questioning me, perhaps I will love you.”

“Everything you want!”

“But I warn you, I want to be free to do whatever suits me, without giving you the slightest information about my life. I’ve been looking for a young lover for a long time, someone who isn’t strong-willed, who’s loving but not mistrustful, who is loved by me, but who doesn’t claim that as his right. I’ve never been able to find one. Men, instead of being satisfied with the favors one grants them after a long courtship during which they scarcely hoped to obtain that favor even once, expect their mistress to give them a full account of her present, her past, and even her future. Once they get used to her, they want to dominate her, and they become still more insistent on getting everything they want. If I decide to take a new lover now, I want him to have three qualities that are extremely rare: He must be confident, obedient, and discreet.”

“I will be everything you could wish.”

“We shall see.”

“And when will we see each other?”



“Because,” Marguerite said, extracting herself from my arms and taking up a large bouquet of red camellias that had been brought in that morning, one of which she threaded through my buttonhole. “Because one cannot always execute treaties the day they are signed.”

That was easy to understand.

“And when will I see you again?” I asked, holding her tight in my arms.

“When this camellia changes color.”

“And when will it change color?”

“Tomorrow, between eleven o’clock and midnight. Are you happy?”

“How can you ask?”

“Not a word of this, neither to your friend, nor to Prudence, nor to anybody.”

“I promise.”

“Now, kiss me and let’s go back to the dining room.”

She gave me her lips, smoothed her hair again, and we left that room—she was singing; I was half-crazy.

In the living room she stopped and said to me softly, “It must seem strange to you that I seem ready to accept you at once—do you know where that comes from? It comes,” she continued, taking my hand and placing it on her heart, whose violent and repeated palpitations I could feel, “it comes from the fact that, knowing I will live a shorter time than others, I have sworn to myself to live with greater speed.”

“Don’t speak to me in that way, I beg you.”

“Oh! Console yourself,” she continued, laughing. “As little time as I have to live, I will outlive your love for me.”

And she entered the dining room, singing.

“Where is Nanine?” she said, seeing Gaston and Prudence alone.

“Bad girl! I’ll kill her! All right, gentlemen, it’s time for you to go.”

Ten minutes later, Gaston and I left. Marguerite clasped my hand as she said good-bye, and remained with Prudence.

“Well then,” Gaston asked me when we were outside, “what do you think of Marguerite?”

“She’s an angel, and I’m crazy about her.”

“I thought so. Did you tell her?”


“And did she promise to believe you?”


“Not like Prudence.”

“She promised you?”

“Better than that, my friend! You wouldn’t think so, but she’s still in fine form, that fat Duvernoy!”