The Lady of the Camellias CHAPTER XII

At five in the morning, as the daylight began to appear through the curtains, Marguerite told me, “Forgive me if I send you away, but I must. The duke comes every morning; he will be told I am sleeping when he comes, and he will likely wait until I get up.”

I took Marguerite’s head into my hands, her hair rippled around her, and I gave her a final kiss, saying to her, “When will I see you again?”

“Listen,” she replied, “take the little golden key that’s on the mantel, go open that door, bring the key back here, and leave. In the afternoon you will receive a letter with my orders, which you know you must blindly obey.”

“Yes, and what if I were to ask something of you already?”

“What is it, then?”

“Let me keep this key.”

“I’ve never done for anyone what you ask of me now.”

“Well then, do it for me, because I swear that I do not love you as the others loved you.”

“Well then, keep it, but I warn you that it is up to me whether this key works for you at all.”


“Because there are other locks on the door.”


“I will have them removed.”

“So you love me a little?”

“I don’t know how it has happened, but it seems that I do. Now go away; I am so tired I could collapse.”

We remained a few moments in each other’s arms and I left.

The streets were deserted; the great city still slept. A sweet freshness traversed these neighborhoods that a few hours later would be invaded by the noise of men.

This sleeping city seemed to belong to me. I searched my memory for the names of other men whose happiness I had envied until now, and felt luckier than every last one of them.

To be loved by a chaste young girl, to be the first to reveal love’s strange mysteries to her, certainly that is a great happiness, but it’s the simplest thing in the world. To take possession of a heart that is unaccustomed to such invasions is to enter an open and undefended city. Education and the sense of duty and family are powerful sentinels, but there are no sentinels so vigilant that they cannot be outwitted by a sixteen-year-old girl to whom nature is giving its first lessons in love, in the voice of the man she loves, nature’s counsel all the more ardent because of its innocence.

The more the young girl believes in goodness, the more easily she surrenders, if not to the lover, then at least to love, because her trustfulness makes her powerless. Any man of twenty-five may achieve the victory of making her fall in love with him whenever he wishes. To see the truth in this, just look how they surround young girls with surveillance and ramparts! Convents don’t have walls high enough, mothers don’t have locks strong enough, religion doesn’t have penance stern enough to keep all those charming birds in their cages, in which nobody takes the trouble to strew flowers. How they must long for this world that is hidden from them, how tempting they must think it is, how they must long to hear the first voice that comes through the bars to tell them secrets—and kiss the hand that lifts, for the first time, a corner of the mysterious veil.

But to be truly loved by a courtesan, that is a much harder-won victory. In their case, the body has worn out the soul, the senses have burned up the heart, dissipation has hardened the feelings. All the pretty words one tells them they have known for a long time, the methods one uses are familiar to them, and even the love they inspire they have sold. They love as a matter of business, not inclination. They are better protected by their own calculations than a virgin by her mother and her convent. They have even invented the word caprice for those loves without profit that they permit themselves from time to time as a kind of holiday, as an excuse or a consolation, like those usurers who ransom a thousand individuals but believe they can redeem themselves by not asking for interest or a receipt when they lend twenty francs to some poor devil who’s dying of hunger.

Then, when God grants love to a courtesan, this love, which seems at first like a reprieve, nearly always becomes a punishment for her. There is no absolution without penitence. When a creature who has all her past to rue feels herself suddenly overcome by a deep, sincere, irresistible love, of which she never would have believed herself capable, when she has acknowledged this love, how she is dominated by the man she loves! How mighty he feels with his cruel right to tell her, “You do nothing more for love than you have done for money.”

Then they don’t know what proofs they can supply. A child, according to fable, after having amused itself by crying “Help!” in a field to annoy the workers, was devoured by a bear one day because those he had tricked so often in the past did not believe his genuine cries for help. It is the same for those unlucky women when they truly love. They have lied so many times that nobody believes them, and they are, in the midst of their remorse, devoured by their love.

This is what inspires those great devotions, those self-sacrificing retreats from the world of which some women have left us the example.

But when the man who inspires such redemptive love has a soul generous enough to accept it without recalling the past, when he surrenders to it, when in the end he loves as he is loved, this man exhausts with one blow all earthly emotions, and his heart forever after is closed to all other loves.

I did not come by these reflections on the morning I returned home. They would have been nothing more than a presentiment of what might happen to me, and despite my love for Marguerite, I did not think of such consequences at that time; today I do. Everything being irrevocably over, they are the natural result of what took place.

But let us return to the first day of this liaison. When I returned home, I was filled with wild exuberance. As I reflected that the barriers my imagination had erected between Marguerite and me had disappeared, that I possessed her, that I occupied a small place in her thoughts, that I had in my pocket the key to her apartment and the right to use this key, I was satisfied with life, proud of myself, and I loved God, who had allowed this to happen.

One day a young man walks down a street, he bumps into a woman, he looks at her, he turns around, he walks on. This woman—he does not know her—has joys, sorrows, and loves that he has no part in. He does not exist for her, and perhaps if he were to talk to her she would mock him as Marguerite had mocked me. Weeks, months, years pass, and all of a sudden, when they have each pursued their destiny in different directions, the logic of chance brings them face-to-face. This woman becomes the mistress of this man and loves him. How? Why? Their two existences merge into one; hardly does intimacy arise between them before it seems to them that it had existed forever, and everything that came before is erased from the memory of the two lovers. It’s a strange thing, let us concede.

As for me, I could no longer remember how I had lived before the preceding night. All my being was exalted by the joy of the memory of the words we had exchanged that first night. Either Marguerite was exceptionally good at deception, or she had succumbed to one of those sudden passions that reveal themselves with the first kiss, and that, as often as not, die as soon as they are born.

The more I thought about it, the more I told myself that Marguerite had no reason to feign a love she did not feel, and I told myself as well that women have two ways of loving, and that one can grow out of the other: They love either with the heart or with the body. Often a woman takes a lover only to obey her sensual urges, and discovers the mystery of ineffable love without having sought it, and thereafter can no longer live except through her heart. Whereas a young girl who had looked for nothing in marriage but the union of two pure affections often may receive the sudden revelation of physical love, that energetic resolution of the chastest impulses of the soul.

I fell asleep amid these thoughts. I was awoken by a letter from Marguerite, a letter that contained these words:

Here are my orders: Tonight at the Vaudeville. Come during the third intermission.


I put this note in a drawer so as to always have the reality of it close at hand in case I came to doubt it, as happened many a time.

She did not tell me to come see her in the afternoon; I did not dare present myself at her place. But I had such a great desire to see her before the evening that I went to the Champs-Élysées, where, as on the previous night, I had watched her drive past and disembark.

At seven o’clock I was at the Vaudeville.

Never before had I entered a theater so early.

All the boxes were filling up, one after another. Only one remained empty: the one on the ground floor, near the stage.

At the beginning of the third act I heard the door of this box open, the one on which my eyes had been almost constantly fixed. Marguerite appeared.

She went to the front immediately, looked to the orchestra, saw me, and thanked me with her gaze.

She looked marvelously beautiful that night.

Was I the cause of this coquetry? Did she love me enough to believe that the more beautiful I found her, the happier I would be? I was not sure yet, but if that had been her intention she succeeded, because as soon as she showed herself, heads swiveled, one after another, and even the actor then on stage looked for himself to see whose appearance had provoked such agitation among the spectators.

And I had the key to this woman’s apartment, and in three or four hours she would be mine again.

People find fault with those who ruin themselves over actresses and kept women; what astonishes me is that they don’t commit twenty times more follies for them than they do. One must have lived that life, as I did, to know how strongly the little everyday vanities they give their lovers are knit together in the heart, and, as we have no other word for it, in the love he bears her.

Prudence next took her place in the box, and a man I knew as the Comte de G . . . sat at the back.

At the sight of him, a chill gripped my heart.

Without doubt Marguerite saw the reaction that this man’s presence in her box produced in me, for she smiled at me again and, turning her back to the count, appeared to give her full attention to the play. At the third intermission she turned and said a word or two; the count left the box, and Marguerite signaled for me to come see her.

“Good evening,” she said when I entered, and gave me her hand.

“Good evening,” I responded, addressing both Marguerite and Prudence.

“Have a seat.”

“But I am taking somebody’s place. Isn’t M. le Comte de G . . . coming back?”

“Yes; I sent him to get me candy so we can speak alone for a moment. Mme Duvernoy is in my confidence.”

“Yes, my children,” said the lady. “Rest assured, I will say nothing.”

“What is wrong with you tonight?” asked Marguerite, rising, walking to the dark end of the box, and kissing me on the forehead.

“I don’t feel well.”

“You should go to bed,” she replied, with that ironic air that suited her dainty and spirited head so well.


“At your place.”

“You know very well that I would not be able to sleep there.”

“All the same, you must not come and pout at us because you’ve seen a man in my box.”

“It is not for that reason.”

“Yes it is, I know it is, and you are in the wrong, so let’s speak no more of it. You will come after the show to Prudence’s, and you will stay there until I call for you. Do you understand?”


How could I disobey?

“Do you still love me?” she asked.

“How can you ask!”

“You’ve thought of me?”

“All day long.”

“Do you know that I am decidedly afraid I’m falling in love with you? Ask Prudence.”

“Ah!” the stout creature said. “This is too much.”

“Now, go back to your stall; the count is about to return, and it will not be useful for him to find you here.”

“Why not?”

“Because you find it unpleasant to see him.”

“No; it’s just that, if you had told me you wanted to come to the Vaudeville tonight, I could have gotten you this box instead of him.”

“Unfortunately he got it for me without my asking him, and offered to accompany me here. You know very well I could not refuse. All I could do was write to you where I was going so you could see me, and because I myself wanted to see you earlier than I might have otherwise; but since this is how you repay me, I will profit from this lesson.”

“I was in the wrong, forgive me.”

“At the proper time, return nicely to your seat, and above all, don’t act jealous.”

She kissed me again, and I left.

In the hallway I saw the count coming back.

I returned to my seat.

After all, M. de G . . . ’s presence in Marguerite’s box made sense. He had been her lover, he had bought her the box, he had accompanied her to the performance. All of this was completely natural, and from the moment I had taken a girl like Marguerite for a mistress, I was going to have to accept her ways.

But all the same, I was unhappy for the rest of the evening, and as I left I was saddened to see Prudence, the count, and Marguerite get in the barouche that awaited them by the door.

A quarter of an hour later, I was at Prudence’s. She had only just returned home.